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Cosmology? Bah, Humbug!

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Hello and welcome to my cosmology and astroscience blog.

Is Cosmology fact or fiction, science or fairy tale? Do we need it? Is it good for us? Does it have any useful purpose? Should we be confined to a Standard Model?

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Hilton Skywalker

Chapter 6: A Conspiracy of Theories

From Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks by Hilton Ratcliffe (Muse Harbor Publishing, 2014)

Chapter 6: A Conspiracy of Theories

The Great Spin Doctor’s Revival Show
In the preceding chapters, we set the tone for an enquiry into the dizzying maze of belief. It hasn’t been easy. We are soaked in the stuff. We humans positively reek of belief. I don’t know, as you and I lounge in our subjective sandpit, if we could ever have a sensible discussion about objectivity, but I am surely going to try. So fasten your seat belt please….
Let us review, very briefly, what we have covered so far: Belief is an instinctive, subjective organisation of information coming at us from the natural world; none of us is free from belief; it separates us from pristine truth; we need to find a way to minimise the impact on our collective knowledge base. Before we proceed, I think it would be a jolly good idea to look at some examples of how belief has tainted the sacred cows of scientific endeavour.
Author Len Deighton once wrote, “Experience is a method of endorsing prejudice.” Dominant models rule our lives, and in doing so illustrate several facets of belief in practice—Ideological Momentum,[1] the Dialogic Process,[2] and what I call Faith Drag,[3] the moralistic clinging to the ashes of a defunct idea. This is not a critique of faith per se; merely an illustration, by example, of how easily it can lead one astray.
When Hawking gave up on Black Holes, it was momentous[4]. So too was Peter Woit’s denial of String Theory[5]. But their flocks would not deny it. They were captured by belief. “What a weak barrier truth is when it stands in the way of an hypothesis,” said Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley. Indeed.
The multifarious roles that belief systems play in our lives was put into hilarious perspective in the hit TV series “The Big Bang Theory.”[6] The scene takes place in the lounge of the flat theoretical physicist Dr Sheldon Cooper shares with experimental physicist Dr Leonard Hofstadter. Leonard is making out on the sofa with his new girlfriend, Dr Leslie Winkle, another theoretical physicist. Sheldon interrupts them, and a side-splitting kerfuffle ensues about the relative merits of String Theory (promoted by Sheldon) and Loop Quantum Gravity (of which Leslie is a great fan). It plays out like this:
Sheldon (in response to Leslie’s outburst about Loop Quantum Gravity): “I’m listening. Amuse me.”
Leslie: “Okay, for one thing, we expect quantum spacetime to manifest itself as minute differences in the speed of light for different colours…”
Sheldon: “Balderdash! Matter clearly consists of tiny strings.”
Leslie (turning indignantly to Leonard): “Are you going to let him talk to me like that?”
Leonard: “Okay, well, there’s a lot of merit in both theories…”
Leslie (raising her voice): “No there’s NOT! Only Loop Quantum Gravity calculates the entropy of Black Holes!”
Sheldon: (snort of derision).
Leslie (to Leonard): You agree with me, right? Loop Quantum Gravity IS the future of physics!”
Leonard: “Sorry, Leslie, I guess I prefer my space stringy and not loopy.”
Leslie (exasperated): “FINE! I’m glad I found out the truth about you before this went any further!”
Leonard: “Truth? What truth? We’re talking about untested hypotheses. Look, it’s no big deal…”
Leslie: “Oh, it isn’t? Really? Tell me Leonard, how will we raise the children?”
Leonard: “I guess we wait until they’re old enough and let them choose their theories…”
Leslie (storming out): “You can’t let them choose, Leonard! They’re CHILDREN!”
No wonder The Big Bang Theory is my favourite television series, despite a name that sticks in my craw. The dialogue almost casually hits the nerve of human frailty, episode after episode. Genius!
Belief invariably hardens when one is exposed to propaganda that disseminates an idea, provided of course that the idea being put forward harmonises with one’s predisposition. Once belief takes control, the evidence presented is subjectively censored without due diligence and doctrinal filters ensure that nothing contrary is granted validity. The dogma remains safe. My mother would often tell me, “Hilton, you can argue yourself into anything.” How right she was. The pursuit of objectivity in science eventually became a passion for me (and I reflect on how dangerous that can be). It has involved trying to put myself forward as some kind of professional agnostic, forever claiming that we can’t know absolutely, and that belief does not make our opinions divine.
I don’t think anyone could have fairly predicted just how enormous and far-reaching the effects of instant global communication would become, but the Internet is now one of the great wonders to emerge from the 20th century. The World Wide Web provides effective channels for the global spread of ideas and information that might otherwise never have gone much further than the writer’s desk. Along with the opening up of thoughts and ideals and discoveries, the Web also provides unprecedented opportunities for commerce and revenue. But more startling than any of its more glamorous achievements has been the incredibly efficient platform the Internet has turned out to be for the propagation of fraud and deception.
The need to proselytise is one of the most annoying aspects of belief-driven behaviour. We develop a belief, become proud of it and what it says about us, and then set about projecting our garnished self-image upon the hapless folk who fall into the sweep of our radar. The advent of mass-communication media riding on the Internet makes the task of evangelising our opinions that much easier. The World Wide Web, for all its magnificence, has a darker side.
A very interesting rule has emerged from the anarchy of Internet discussions. In 1990, while the pubescent World Wide Web was still rubbing the sleep from its eyes, a fellow named Mike Godwin identified a trend. It has since become known as Godwin’s Law, and he states it thus:
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
In plain language, Godwin says that any Internet discussion thread, given enough time and no matter what it’s about, invariably introduces a reference to Hitler or the Nazis. In 2012, “Godwin’s Law” became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
What has this to do with what we are discussing here? Quite a lot, actually. As it became more widely used in Internet forums, Godwin’s Law took on a slightly different meaning. It is nowadays taken to indicate that the blogger invoking Hitler has run out of authentic arguments, and that the time has come to close the thread. References to Hitler in any arbitrary context are considered overtly inappropriate, often called “playing the Hitler card.” Hitler is a powerful metaphor, and should be used sparingly in civilised discussion; sadly, online discussions are seldom civilised. What Godwin’s Law illustrates for me is how easily people support their beliefs by loose analogy. Arguments are rarely, if ever, really supported by mentioning Hitler, and it shows a measure of desperation, in my opinion. It’s a form of fibbing, a blight on our quest for truth, but it remains nevertheless a pertinent sign of the times.
Up there on the Web, our cyber persona usurps our real blemished self, and we magically become younger, sexier, and infinitely cleverer. It’s rather like being drunk, with the ghastly caveat that we are at the same time quite untouchable. We can rant and froth and insult, and not a soul can punch us in the face. From the protected ivory tower of Internet platforms, we can spew and spam with impunity. And that brings us to another fascinating nuance of beliefiosity: Our knee-jerk participation in the dark art of forwarding.
Here I am in grave danger of succumbing to my own passion. I detest the exponentially exploding messages that clog our cyber conduits, almost as much as I abhor conspiracy theories and cruelty. It seems to me that they somehow offend my personal morality, and therefore immediately volunteer themselves as prime candidates for the analytical microscope being deployed in this book. The very existence of verification sites like Snopes and Hoax Slayer, and the thousand upon thousand pages of evidence they present, bear testimony to just how far this scourge has reached.
What concerns us as behavioural scientists is not so much the motivation of the shadowy authors of Internet spam (although that is interesting in itself) but the reasons why we so impulsively hit the forward button. If we did not pass electronic chain letters on to our friends, one of the great plagues of the 21st century would simply die out. It seems to me that we are belief automatons.
As with all belief, the overwhelming majority of electronically forwarded broadcasts (in effect, chain letters) are hoaxes, and even worse, frauds. They range from mildly misleading to downright dangerous, from Tweets to BBM broadcasts to lavishly illustrated emails. As the world’s most famous humanitarian Nelson Mandela lay in his hospital, kept with us still by life support machines, the Tweets came flooding in pronouncing him by some privileged insight or prophetic ability already dead. The Tweets were picked up on media web pages, where they gained the respectability of a masthead and photographs, and before we knew it, the lies were going viral on Facebook and Windows Mail. If those messages keep going out daily, then it stands to reason that sooner or later they will coincide with the truth, and the false prophets will no doubt be canonised by their disciples.
We need to be careful. It’s all too easy for us to become a monkey on the back of organised religion, but that would be missing the point rather badly. Religion, by my rustic definition, is a philosophical framework in which one can respectably claim the absurd. In my view, that gives it a charming honesty that overshadows the inherent irrationality of proclaiming knowledge of a realm governed by terrifyingly omnipotent, largely grumpy deities. We, the enlightened, free-thinking readers of a book like this, may well be more interested in objectivity’s Yin than in religion’s Yang, but they are both important; like conservative and liberal in political sociology, they form an essential polarity, unavoidably part of the pairings that anchor our understanding of the world. Belief, let me say it again, is ubiquitous and impartial; it affects all of us in more or less equal measure. I’d like to illustrate this disquieting truth by looking past the ceremonial cloaks of some famous secular theories. Before we get down to specifics, let us digress just a tad to get a more microscopic handle on the social form of belief when it organises as a survival mechanism.
The buy-in to the most influential beliefs of our time has been lubricated and reinforced by an attitude best described as righteous indignation. It has to do with the perception of exclusive, privileged insight. We are stimulated by the idea that we have the vision to see past the veil of stupidity that smothers global opinions other than our own, and we consequently claim for ourselves the victory of truth. There is almost always some hint at conspiracy, which we, the moral victors, have identified in the war we wage on behalf of humanity.
Believers in man-made global warming see capitalism as the global ogre, and they bravely face up to that particular threat in the costume of David before the awful Goliath. Believers in 9/11 conspiracy latch onto the uttering of those claiming to have an inside track on what actually bombed the WTC, be it the US government, Jews, aliens, whatever. Believers in alternative medicine decry the sinister choke-hold that conventional medicine has on research and clinical practice. Deniers of the Apollo landings see NASA as an agency of the Illuminati. There is broad commonality between these revolutionary believers. All see the promotion of their belief as a duty to mankind. All manufacture evidence in support. All believe they hold the moral high ground. All pay homage to the prophets of their belief, and even more earnestly vilify those that oppose them. All defend their positions with righteous indignation. It is thus supremely ironical that those sucked into conspiracy theories at whatever level have in fact been duped into believing that they are being duped.
There are things—great big cloudy things—so compelling to contemplate that we easily consider them vital to the survival of our species. They are not, as it turns out, but that we make them so. Theoretical physicists spend their whole careers trying to model the entire universe, when it should be clear to common sense that such an achievement, in the unlikely event that it could be properly framed, would be quite impossible to test unambiguously against reality. Bertrand Russell pondered upon his navel with such dedication that he produced, together with mathematical idealist Alfred North Whitehead, the densely abstruse volume Principia Mathematica (what persuaded them to mimic the title of Isaac Newton’s classic, I shall never know). It was an attempt to ground mathematics, such as the art had become, in logic; as far as I can tell, it failed to achieve that goal.
I am the first to admit that I don’t quite get the gist of Russell’s magnum opus, because mathematics at its roots and in the glory days of Euclid was simply a symbolic expression of logic, a clever way to derive quantities by recognising and simplifying patterns and relationships. That Russell and Whitehead should have produced a Britannica of philosophical gymnastics in order to attempt to relate mathematics to logic should immediately inform us that what they were dealing with was beyond the bound of pure mathematics, and had entered another, altogether more arcane realm. Call it what you will, mathematical syntax that is subverted and manipulated so that it can frame philosophical arguments is no longer mathematics. It is meta-mathematics.
The mathematical conception of the universe depends strictly upon one’s skill and ability in mathematical techniques. The implication is that without the requisite fluency and understanding of mathematics, one is barred from forming a realistic conception of the world about us. It is shocking that these people, whose sole qualification for their position of power is advanced knowledge of an arcane, esoteric symbolic language that few in the world can understand, elevate themselves to the podium of all science. They become self-appointed, self-regulating high priests, immune to external challenge. Unless we are completely fluent in their chosen language (whether it is Sanskrit or Latin or Ancient Hebrew or hieroglyphics or differential geometry) we are denied access to real understanding. They decide. No one else.
I find the notion of mathematical exclusivity absurd. It locks science into a modus that protects the fundamentals from independent investigators, no matter how deep their non-mathematical knowledge may be. In effect, reality is not defined by mathematics per se, but by our ability with the language. Reality in that scheme becomes truly user-defined and observer-dependent. This is totally unacceptable to me.
The notion of Black Holes[7] is one of the clearest examples of this type of thinking in action. My own analysis of the Black Hole model suggests that it is not only completely absurd to a rational mind, but also mathematically untenable. In their haste to make magic, theorists building the model have made some fundamental errors in the formal flow of the equations they derive; their theory gains solutions where none truly exist. Faith Drag ignores the errors. Now that the magi have mastered the trick, they simply cannot present their show without it.
My point is this: It’s not so much what they were imagining that was the problem as the way they were doing it, and ultimately, by what means they confirmed for themselves that their musings were indubitably true and real. There are two books to which I devoted special energy in a quest to find what made them so compelling to their followers: Russell and Whitehead’s aforementioned Principia Mathematica, and Moses et al’s Christian Bible. In both cases I failed miserably, yet in an unexpected way I garnered great profit from my labours. The means of expression was in both cases frustratingly obscure, and this was the key. It became clear to me that the meanings taken from those books (meanings which, it must be said, vary considerably amongst scholars) depend almost entirely upon the belief structures of the readers at the outset. This was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a godsend, and led ultimately to the book you’re reading now. The question I had to ask myself was the $64,000 question that frames the ultimate chapter of this work: What can be done about it?
In a nutshell, I concluded that while we ought not to constrain the conclusions that investigators reach after considering the data, we can and should improve considerably on the method employed to collect and present the primary evidence.
Whenever one buys into someone’s theory or model, it is inevitable that a degree of hero-worship creeps in. The author of the theory is in effect canonised, and becomes a preferred, infallible authority. Glazed adulation eventually forms a defensive perimeter that resists any form of critical analysis or falsification. I’m sure we all have friends or acquaintances who present these symptoms. The canonisation of an individual transforms the acolyte’s thinking in a substantial way, with the result that in a surprisingly short time, theory is converted into full-blown doctrine.
Cults always form in the ambience of a particularly charismatic central character. The charisma exuded by cult leaders is not necessarily of the centre-stage, showbiz variety. In fact, it is very seldom overt. It really is an extraordinary talent, granting them the ability to completely remove rational filters from the minds of those who follow them. People drawn to cults very often come from families in crisis, and are consequently emotionally vulnerable. Cults very easily form surrogate families for these unfortunate individuals, “families with benefits” if you will.
Even more astounding to the student of belief is that this grip on the minds of disciples remains vigorously active long after the guru has died. Religious subjugation is a heinous form of slavery, given that it creates pawns that will defend their slavery and insist that they prefer it to other, less restrictive ways of living. I have spoken to cult members who can readily recognise the bondage of members of other cults, but are quite incapable of recognising or admitting their own.
That there is untruth in every orthodox version of events is a virtual certainty, as we have come to see thus far. But instead of exposing those elements of deception for what they are and leaving the skeleton of veracity for our further inspection, conspiracy theorists attempt to replace the whole model with one of even more insidiousness. They conjure up alternatives from the shadows of depravity for the most despicable of reasons: Conspiracy theorists are charlatans and scoundrels, and the damage they do to the quest for truth is incalculable.
It’s an ill wind, however, that blows no good at all, and conspiracy theories provide the student of belief systems with rich turf for his studies. Not every belief is morally bad; and indeed, many are beneficial to society and leave people measurably better off while doing no substantial harm. On the other hand, conspiracy theories—if measured against their ability to bring us closer to truth and enlightenment—are a sociopathic blight.
The strange thing about belief is this—believing something makes one feel special. No matter what we believe in, we take an almost creepy delight in it. Perhaps that ineluctable, inordinately zealous, usually irrational defence of belief we so often find is a consequence of not wanting to lose the rewards it endows? Do we hear echoes of a smoker defending cigarettes, or the child frantically swaddling itself in a security blanket? Believing and instinct reward us in precisely the same ways. Taste makes eating a pleasure, and sexual thrills make the whole messy business of procreation a preferred destination; likewise, believing makes survival an exercise in gratification. Reality is not always palatable, but the sweetener of faith in a personal deity of whatever shape, size or form certainly helps to make it rosy. That’s why I stipulate that belief is an instinctual imperative. The writer Flannery O’Connor told us that truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. I would add that truth does not improve by our propensity to believe a preferred version of it.
I’d like us to pause here for a moment and reflect. Here’s the thing—belief doesn’t wander around aimlessly, nor do we carriers of the germ all quietly retreat to mull over our beliefs in solitude for the rest of our days. Belief tends to organise itself, inside and out.
Cults provide the most focussed examples of organised belief—but there’s a caveat. If we study cults to determine the truth about them generally, we need for the purposes of our initial study to ignore the one we might be part of ourselves. To achieve that, we should first and foremost learn with sufficient clarity just what a cult is, so that we can recognise the framework surrounding our thinking. As with gangs and tribes, I have defined cults somewhat more broadly than the standard view allows, conscious always not to depart from the spirit of the popular conception of these groups. I have done this in the interests of parsimony; rather than invent a new word, I have commandeered one from the lexicon, and adapted it to suit my purpose. I should hope the effectiveness of this approach will soon become apparent.
There is a thread that links gangs to mobs, cults and sects, and even to the broader mass of religious groups. We can track the connection if we look first at gangs and work our way backwards to religion. Gangs are theatres of debauchery. They set up social islands wherein base urges are legitimate and encouraged as a sign of membership and rank within the group. In other words, they allow instincts to rule behaviour to the detriment of civilised constraint. A gang is an expression of protest and defiance that exaggerates the level of aggression required by instinct. Gangs and mobs seek the pleasurable rewards of instinct out of all proportion to their design. Sex, mating rituals, violence, turf warfare, territorial displays, and pack frenzy are all subverted to the worship of unconstrained hedonism.
Gang members live for the thrill of being an outlaw. There are other bonding threads in gangs linked to survival in an inhospitable and forbidding social environment, but the ultimate raison d’être of gangs, and equally of cults and sects, is to seek some modicum of purpose in life. It’s a longing that can become quite desperate; and the greater the desperation, the more extreme the pack behaviour becomes. In gangs, the pleasure-taking is general to the membership, whereas in cults and sects, members are subverted more to the dark pleasures of their leaders. Polygamy and sexual control are examples of how base instincts are expressed in cults. Of course, some cults exhibit group behaviour that is decent and beyond reproach, but they nevertheless commit themselves to satisfying the will and desires of their leadership. It’s all just a question of scale, reflecting the degree to which packs of people throw off the constraints of social mores.
In the most general terms, a cult is a group of people who share a dogmatically held common purpose or belief. The word first appeared in the 17th century, and is derived from the Latin root cultus (meaning to worship). The term thus implied a religious grouping in its original form, making the description unexpectedly appropriate. There is a strong link between cults and worship, even in non-religious groups. The leaders of cults are invariably worshipped; and hero-worship reveals an oddly self-deprecating human reaction to charisma.
Sadly, this sort of blind adulation often has tragic consequences.
The concept of cults was embraced by sociology in the 1930s, and separated from the notion of sects, which differ in that they are born from ideological differences with a progenitor religious body. Sects form part of a lineage, creating continuity with mainstream ideas, whereas cults form quite spontaneously around the novel and unprecedented revelations of a particular individual. The primary difference between my definition of cults and the more usual one lies in the size or scope of the cult. They are generally held to be relatively small, fringe groups of disaffected individuals, but I have found that the glue that gives cults their cohesion is surprisingly independent of their size.
There is something sinister about cults. Viewed from the outside, they just don’t seem kosher. Much as I try to remain objective, I must admit to a level of prejudice. The label “cult” is usually a pejorative term, and I wish I could free myself from that preconception. But—and this is a big but—I do not apologise for having ethical standards. Cults have only themselves to blame for the negative light in which they are often viewed. This has less to do with internal rites or doctrine—it is far easier to abhor Satanists than it is to dislike the relatively decent principles that drive Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example—than it has with the modus operandi employed by cults to psychologically imprison their flocks. I think this is where I hit the nerve, for it is here that we find we can include the cults operating in the world of science.
Sociologists Stark and Brainbridge have given us the currently accepted definition of a cult: “A deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices.”[8] Contingent upon the arguments raised in this book, I drop the word “religious” and see where that takes us. I should imagine that this is quite acceptable, because making cults inherently religious immediately excludes secular cults, of which there are many. They include the Shining Path guerrilla group, the 9/11 Truth movement, the Charles Manson Family, the Roswell UFO conspiracy theorists, the Y2K and Mayan doomsday cults, and the fans of James Dean, to name but a few.
Mary Ann Sieghart provides a useful précis of the qualities that admit a social group to the ranks of cultism:
“It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means.”[9]
However, the choice of words is easily taken to be demeaning, and that carries an onerous overhead when we interview members in the course of studying cults. Let’s be frank; from a sociological point of view, cults are not a good thing, no matter how deliriously happy its members may appear to be from time to time. Cults are a manifestation of belief, and as such (if I am to be trusted), they do objective truth a grave disservice. The fact remains that the five characteristics listed by Sieghart really do apply to cults, and we must deal with the negativity that comes with the bundle.
I daresay that none of the points made by Sieghart would be readily accepted by even a single member of any cult that I can think of, but it is also true that they would vehemently disagree with scholars of the phenomenon that their grouping is indeed a cult. And that brings us to another important property of this type of social group: It is in the nature of cults, as with belief generally, that we consider our own as exclusively beyond criticism. It is something that affects social scientists studying cults as much as it does the subjects they are examining. We need to be very strict about this, or we shall end up guilty of producing blatant propaganda for whatever team we happen to bat for. If I were, say, a Scientologist, my scholarly investigation of cults would be overtly biased if I included Scientology as a case study. Furthermore, I would surely not use the term cult to describe my own group, preferring instead to insist that it is a glowing exception. That Scientology is a cult, embodying all the negatives that characterise cults, would be perfectly obvious to all but believing Scientologists. As a scholar, I need first to study other cults to determine the principles, and then, finally, apply them to my own situation as an exercise in self-realisation that might usefully follow scientific investigation..
One of the identifying markers put forward by Dr Sieghart is that cults form closed, totalitarian societies. Not all do, but it certainly applies to the majority of cults, enough to make it a strong pointer. Let’s see if it fits a scientific group. The operators of the Large Hadron Collider, famous for their alleged “discovery” of the fabled Higgs boson, fit the bill rather nicely. The group is both closed and totalitarian. No one outside of the elite, almost invisible band of particle physicists admitted to the inner sanctum has any say on what goes on there. They do their work in secret and speak in a language few can understand, surfacing only occasionally to make selective announcements about the outcome of their rites. Completely self-regulating, they answer to no one but themselves.[10]
Yes, they fit our definition of a cult quite comfortably.
Doctrinal oligarchs have two strings to their bow: Consensus and authority. They succeed in their nefarious plots by creating the perception that they are, or exclusively represent, a privileged authority. It doesn’t matter whether the authority being served may itself be at some considerable remoteness and probably unavailable for any sort of material personal interaction with most of us—for example, God, NASA, aliens—there is no shortage of self-appointed agents out there to bring us the good news. We are made to cower, almost literally, before these dominant authorities, as much in awe of their elevation in the hierarchy as we are fearful of their wrath. Then, in a coup de grace, the whole thing is wrapped in a blanket of consensus and fraternal bonding, and voila! A cult is born.
There are several things we need to add to our understanding of cults, and they correlate neatly with what we shall soon reveal in our discussion of conspiracy theories. Firstly, we shall see (to our astonishment, no doubt) that this sort of behaviour is by no means limited to religionists. The halls of science are replete with cults, flying flags of every colour in the rainbow. Secondly, consensus is an internal term; it does not imply the aligned views of a majority in society, as it might in national politics, but instead describes consensus within the cult itself. Thirdly, cults are gangs, just with moral arrogance thrown into the mix. This sense of moral high ground felt by the protagonists of a particular model draws them quickly into the club, and before long they too are fighting for it. It certainly explains why cult members tend to ignore or denigrate criticism.
Thus, we get a ruling class of physicists who call upon the irrefutable authority of Albert Einstein, and who jointly defend that position from the security of internal consensus. We get passionate Christians who invoke the infallible authority of the Pope as the sole agent of God on Earth, and who stand shoulder-to-shoulder against dissent. The 2012 Doomsday cult believed without question in the authority of the Mayans as they saw it expressed in the notorious long-cycle calendar. There are many more examples: Groups like Scientologists, Mormons, and al-Qaeda—that is to say, fanatical followers of L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Osama bin Laden respectively—as well as the flocks of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, and Marshall Applewhite. In general, cult members seem to prostrate and abandon their common sense and rational minds before the outrageous and unverifiable claims of figures of authority.
Cults certainly provide very neat models of structured belief and illustrate quite usefully the behavioural nuances spawned by convictions. But for an even more eye-watering view of the unbridled licentiousness with which belief rewards its soldiers, we need look no further than conspiracy theories. Are they any more absurd than common or garden religious sects? No, I don’t think they are. What makes conspiracy theories especially negative to objective science—they are unsurpassed in this regard—is that they claim to a large extent to be based on science. That is what makes them so distasteful to rational people generally, and to scientists in particular.
Before I set out on the journey that would bring this book to fruition, I had been seriously peeved by conspiracy misinformation (I’m being polite) that affected me and my colleagues in space science directly, principally the Moon Landing and Chemtrail cults. The HAARP ionospheric research programme is sponsored mutually by the US military and the University of Alaska. It’s just the thing that conspiracy theorists love to feast on, and they went nuts over it. It has all the elements—space-age technology, covert military involvement, Star Wars force fields; it’s a real Spy-vs-Spy omnibus.
The theories they came up with are, to anyone in the know, absolute nonsense (and, to be honest, extremely offensive), but that doesn’t mean a row of beans to these fellows. I have met some of them, and they matched their sociological profiles perfectly. There is a strong environmental component to the HAARP conspiracy, and it wasn’t long before I realised that many of these groups are quite incestuous. Close cousins in their war against civilisation are the erstwhile Chemtrail gang. I tried hard to reconnect them with the truth of the matter, but it was hopeless. Their typical response was that I must be part of the conspiracy.
Religions follow upon the conversion of theological models into political movements, with all that the term “political” implies. Concern for their own immortality is something that seems to affect politicians and religionists in equal measure. Both employ precisely the same method to ensure that their doctrine flourishes in the minds of generations to come. Without exception, religious methodology relies upon indoctrination; it’s their most important activity. For that reason, global groups like the Roman Catholic Church and Jehova’s Witnesses are by my definition cults. They simply could not continue to exist without indoctrination.
Let’s review. Mary Ann Sieghart lists the defining qualities of cults as follows:
· It indoctrinates its members;
· It forms a closed, totalitarian society;
· It has a self-appointed, messianic, and charismatic leader;
· It believes that the ends justify the means.
For the purposes of this book, I have been liberal with my definition of cults, in order to apply the above principles more broadly. The essential parameters defining a cult can be used to illuminate the workings of more nebulous groupings, provided they meet some or all of the points on Dr Sieghart’s list. In my view, a great deal of overlap exists between cults and conspiracy theories,.
Conspiracy theories trade upon the fundamental premise that there is an elaborate and painstaking official cover-up, and perhaps inadvertently expose the Achilles’ heel of the scientific method. Belief skews our priorities and hog-ties our objective scepticism. The conspiracy theorist can say just about anything, no matter how outlandish, and it will be swallowed hook, line, and sinker—all it needs to do is make government look sufficiently sinister. The intense scrutiny being torqued onto the official version of events is entirely absent from self-examination by protagonists of a conspiracy theory. Conspiracists make absolutely no attempt to falsify their conspiratorial hypothesis, in the scientific tradition. That alone makes their efforts non-science. Evidence rebutting the conspiracy idea doesn’t get checked out. Not even a little bit. Conspiracy theorists are notoriously blinkered by their dogma, and admit no errors. Michael Shermer poses the essential question:
Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? I contend that it is because their pattern-detection filters are wide open, thereby letting in any and all patterns as real, with little or no screening of potential false patterns. Conspiracy theorists connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns, and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias and the hindsight bias (in which we tailor after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition. [11]
Conspiracy theories go wrong where religions go wrong—instead of confining their scepticism to criticism of a particular version of events, they take the next step. They concoct a replacement theory, in great and comprehensive detail, as if they have some exclusive connection to the hidden truth. So consumed are they by their own grand beliefs that they paint a picture in vivid colours and fine resolution, as if that confirms their intimate relationship with some higher power. There is a clear analogy with religion.
Belief overwhelms our faculties for reason and intelligent discrimination, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 9/11 conspiracy theory. I chose that particular conspiracy group from a list of hundreds because it serves so well as an example of internally legitimised craziness. The collective face of alternative theories about the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the events that surrounded it on 11th September 2001 has an interesting name. It’s called the Truth Movement. What brilliant irony.
We don’t have time to explore in depth the social backdrop to the notion that a privileged elite, or several such oligarchies, control many aspects of our daily lives by means of incredibly secretive conspiracies. For serious students of conspiracy theories, such background is essential, and I would urge those individuals to read at least two of my references on the subject, namely Michael Shermer’s much-quoted The Believing Brain, and Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, & Secret Societies[12]. Both provide excellent insight to the phenomenon by meticulous and even-handed scholars, and go into detail beyond the reach of this work.
For our purposes here, all we need concern ourselves with is that the emergence of an entrepreneurial class after the 19th century industrial revolution created an elite social stratum of powerful capitalists whose battlefield is the global marketplace. These business leaders are essentially independent individuals with no discernible inclination to share the spoils with their competition, and by their nature they tend to avoid any form of leadership by committee. While some industrial and commercial corporations are immensely influential, the idea of a truly global conspiracy is far-fetched, and without testable support.
So hungry are latent conspiracists for a conspiratorial cause in which to immerse themselves that they will take up the cudgel for almost anything. What they promote seems to depend largely on how well presented the propaganda is, in other words, on the skill of spin doctors. Some conspiracy theories are so bizarre that no one even bothers trying to debunk them. Taking the cake is British journalist David Icke, who has built up a sizeable following of devoted fans and a full schedule of lucrative international speaking engagements based upon a fantastic conspiracy he has allegedly exposed.
You see, David Icke tells us with a straight face that he believes that humanity is being governed by alien reptiles with shapeshifting abilities. Yes, you did read that correctly. Our government officials are not human at all; in reality, they are form-changing alien lizards. It all started when Christine Fitzgerald, a former close friend of Princess Diana, alleged that the princess once told her that the British royal family were actually well-disguised reptiles from a distant galaxy. Icke’s subsequent investigations uncovered even more horrifying facts: This alien control conspiracy goes far beyond the British royals. Arthur Goldwag describes this cult in his book Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies:
“When seeking to understand the conspiratorial mind, the focus of its obsession is less important than the obsession itself. Jim Marrs has published a string of best-sellers on everything from the Kennedy assassinations and the role played by space aliens in Biblical history to the complicity of US intelligence agencies in the events of 9/11. David Icke, a retired British soccer player and sports announcer turned writer and lecturer, has discerned a conspiracy of shape-shifting reptiles of extraterrestrial origin—among them the British royal family, the Bushes, Gorbachev, and Henry Kissinger—who are striving to subjugate the human race.”[13]
The conspiracy theorists of more recent times have tended to be more focussed in their conjecture, preferring to pick on governments and their agencies as the manifestations of Big Brother. There is indeed some merit in this point of view, and governments have only themselves to blame. As more and more whistleblowers expose covert activities, it lead one to wonder just how much secret manipulation is actually going on. It is without doubt more than we know. This pool of suspicion has become the breeding place of wildly imaginative exaggerations of the status quo, and leads directly to the formulation of conspiracy theories. Almost any publicised event, from roadside bombs to the cutest wisps of fluffy white cloud, is tailed before long by those who claim to have uncovered the real story. To these individuals, everything, no matter how superficially innocent, is at its heart sinister, a dolled-up campaign by a diabolical government. Acts of terrorism are custom made for these folk, grist to their ravenous mill.
As we have seen time and again, belief is an immodest precursor to the contriving of supporting evidence. Zealous conspiracists see conspiracy where more sober analysts find the very suggestion ludicrous. Nowhere in the nearly 50 conspiracy theories that I examined for the purposes of this book is this propensity more obvious than with the 9/11 Truth Movement. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to figure out the mindset that spawns that sort of thing.
The terror attacks of 11 September 2001 were manna from heaven for the conspiracists idling in the wings for a fresh cause to subvert. Based on journalistic investigation, eyewitness reports, and photographic evidence, the events of the day appeared to roll out like this:
After careful, detailed planning lasting years, al-Qaeda launched the most comprehensive and devastating terror attack in history on the morning of Tuesday, 11 September, 2001. Nineteen al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four heavily-fuelled long-haul airliners, took control of the flight decks, and diverted the aircraft towards four selected targets—the Pentagon (HQ of the US Defence Department); one aircraft each for the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City; while the fourth headed for Washington DC but failed to reach its intended target following heroic intervention by the passengers.
The effects were catastrophic. There was serious structural damage to the Pentagon, resulting in a partial collapse on the western side, but it was the spectacular assault on the World Trade Centre that remains forever fixed in memory. Captured on video, the impacts and subsequent fireballs were horrifying, and the damage so extensive, that al-Qaeda commanders later admitted that it far exceeded their expectations. So much so, they saw the hand of Allah itself fanning the flames. Within two hours, both towers had collapsed, taking all the buildings of the WTC complex down with them. A storm of debris and fire caused significant damage to ten other large buildings in the proximity. All in all, nearly 3000 people perished in the attack, including 227 passengers and crew, and 19 hijackers (all positively identified) in the four jetliners. In 2004, Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks. Subsequent investigation has revealed comprehensive details of the planning and commissioning of the entire operation from beginning to end.
One of the most incredible aspects of the conspiracy theory phenomenon is how quickly those who embrace these theories will bring themselves to bear upon an event. There is no doubt that the Internet assists them enormously in their endeavours, and in the case of 9/11, it was particularly effective.
I’d be interested to discover just why it was that some individuals felt the need to conjure up a conspiracy theory in the case of the 9/11 catastrophe. The pivotal argument raised by conspiracy theories is that officials have intentionally falsified the record of events, and as a result the wrong people are being blamed. What was it about the official 9/11 story that raised the conspiracists’ eyebrows at the outset? Why was my own suspicion not piqued when I heard about the attack? The answers to these questions are telling.
We were told that al-Qaeda was responsible for those overt acts of terror on September 11th. What is it that might encourage one to take the view that it al-Qaeda was an unlikely perpetrator? I can’t think of anything that would trigger the suspicion that they were not to blame. I find it extremely plausible, without any further investigation, that a well-funded, well-organised, ideologically extreme international terror organisation like al-Qaeda, which had made explicit threats against the USA, and which had a robust track record in terrorism, would commission the operation. They had both the motive and the means. I certainly wouldn’t rule them out a priori.
On the other hand, is it reasonable to suggest that the US government itself is a more likely perpetrator, or—in alternative versions of the conspiracy—the state of Israel? On balance of probability, one would have to lean strongly towards al-Qaeda. But for some reason not quite clear to the rest of us, the conspiracists chose from the beginning to remove al-Qaeda from the suspect list. Ignoring the most obvious perpetrators from the outset demonstrates the stupefying effect of a pre-existing mindset. The latent conspiracy theorist wants a conspiracy. All the “evidence” supporting conspiracy is therefore obtained by reverse engineering from a pre-ordained conclusion.
The March, 2005 edition of Popular Mechanics carried a well reasoned and intensively researched rebuttal of 16 of the most vehement claims of the Truth Movement. They introduce their analysis as follows:
“Healthy skepticism, it seems, has curdled into paranoia. Wild conspiracy tales are peddled daily on the Internet, talk radio and in other media. Blurry photos, quotes taken out of context and sketchy eyewitness accounts have inspired a slew of elaborate theories: The Pentagon was struck by a missile; the World Trade Center was razed by demolition-style bombs; Flight 93 was shot down by a mysterious white jet. As outlandish as these claims may sound, they are increasingly accepted abroad and among extremists here in the United States.
“To investigate 16 of the most prevalent claims made by conspiracy theorists, POPULAR MECHANICS assembled a team of nine researchers and reporters who, together with PM editors, consulted more than 70 professionals in fields that form the core content of this magazine, including aviation, engineering and the military.
“In the end, we were able to debunk each of these assertions with hard evidence and a healthy dose of common sense. We learned that a few theories are based on something as innocent as a reporting error on that chaotic day. Others are the byproducts of cynical imaginations that aim to inject suspicion and animosity into public debate. Only by confronting such poisonous claims with irrefutable facts can we understand what really happened on a day that is forever seared into world history.”[14]
The Truth Movement follows the well-worn evolutionary path of gangs, and with time it too has become divided in power struggles and ideological fragmentation. We can nonethless still find some fairly representative articles of conspiracy that have been put forward by the movement as a whole. I shall present a handful of these examples for us to consider. The number of folks on this conspiracy bandwagon is rather daunting, and includes such superficially impressive subsets as Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, Pilots for 9/11 Truth, Scholars for 9/11 Truth, and so on, ad nauseum. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in one of my Internet searches I were to find a group going under the banner “Terrorists for 9/11 Truth.” These attempts to attract public sympathy by projecting an aura of “expert testimony” surrounding the conspiracy idea are patently brittle however, as further investigation quickly shows.
In the interests of brevity, I have chosen one conspiracy site to exemplify the Truth Movement generally. It is called 911 Truth.org, and was selected purely because it was top of the list in my Google search for “9/11 truth”. It seems fairly representative of the broader movement, and contains a schedule of their points of departure from the orthodox version of events (quoted verbatim):
· the unprecedented failure of the US air defense system on the morning of the attacks;
· the evidence that Flight 93 was shot down;
· contradictions and dubious evidence in the official claims about the alleged hijackers and masterminds, and doubts about their real identities;
· signs that the alleged hijackers enjoyed high-level protection against discovery by honest investigators;
· evidence that the alleged hijackers were financed by states allied with US intelligence;
· widespread signs of official foreknowledge and, in fact, advance preparation for the 9/11 attack scenario;
· the long-running links between Islamist fundamentalist terror cells and US covert operations, dating back to CIA support for the anti-Soviet mujahedeen and Osama Bin Ladin (sic) himself;
· the demolition-like collapse of the Twin Towers and of a third skyscraper, WTC 7;
· and questions concerning who could have logically expected to derive benefit in the aftermath of a massive attack on the United States.
There are many more strings to the conspiracists’ bow than just these; I show the list simply to illustrate conspiratorial thinking. If one is to evaluate initiatives like 911 Truth.org, one must of course look at the counterarguments and explanations coming from the opposing camp. There are several, but I would suggest www.debunking911.com. It seems to me the most cohesive and comprehensive rebuttal site for the 9/11 conspiracies. Reference is also made to the official, peer-reviewed National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on the entire 9/11 incident. Of crucial specific interest is the NIST Engineering Laboratory’s Questions and Answers about the NIST WTC Towers Investigation, which is a concise and incisive list of 34 popular questions being posed by those inferring government collusion and conspiracy in the 9/11 attack.[15] It concerns itself only with those questions relating to the structural engineering aspects of the catastrophe. If any single document is cited as reference for the conventional view, it should be this one in my opinion.
The NIST Q&A report answers inter alia the following crucial questions, which should clear up most of the scepticism regarding the destruction of the World Trade Centre:
· What caused the collapses of WTC 1 and WTC 2?
· Why didn’t NIST consider a “controlled demolition” hypothesis with matching computer modelling and explanation like it did for the “pancake theory” hypothesis?
· Weren’t the puffs of smoke that were seen, as the collapse of each WTC tower starts, evidence of controlled demolition explosions?
· How could the WTC towers collapse in only 11 seconds (WTC 1) and 9 seconds (WTC 2)—speeds that approximate that of a ball dropped from similar height in a vacuum (with no air resistance)?
· Since the melting point of steel is about 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,800 degrees Fahrenheit) and the temperature of a jet fuel fire does not exceed 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit), how could fires have impacted the steel enough to bring down the WTC towers?
· Did the NIST investigation look for evidence of the WTC towers being brought down by controlled demolition? Was the steel tested for explosives or thermite residues?
My aim here is not to list every question and give the answers contained in the report; that would take a chapter on its own. I would hope that those sincerely seeking the truth of the matter will use the provided links to investigate the issue for themselves. I wish merely to illustrate that every single one of the assertions of the 9/11 Truth Movement has been cogently rebutted by independent professionals, using the highest standards of physical science. Most of the material in the literature is naturally centred on the WTC, because that was the most catastrophic point of attack. There is in addition equally compelling evidence showing that the damage to the Pentagon was indeed caused by American Airlines flight 77; that the US Air Force response was as expected under the circumstances; that the crash site of United Airlines flight 93 was consistent with the scenario deduced from the Black Box, the Cockpit Flight Recorder, and civilian cellphone conversations with passengers, and showed no evidence of having been shot down; and that the assertions concerning the supposed intentional demolition of WTC building 7 are baseless, contrived, and without any credible physical evidence.
What strikes me is that the Truth Movement has not rescinded a single claim in the face of counter evidence. The assertion seems to be that every single one of their points about 9/11 is beyond reasonable doubt, thus above the reach of rational criticism. That smacks strongly of undiluted belief and the defence of convictions, and militates against the notion that their hypotheses are based upon science and objective data. That they claim to be perfectly right in all respects should in itself give the lie to their appeal to scientific reason.
It is interesting also to note that up to the time of this book’s publication, some 13 years after the event, not a single person has owned up to taking part in the cover-up conspiracy. Nor has any perpetrator been found by forensic investigation and brought before the courts. The extent of the required effort, and the sheer numbers of people and organisations that would have had to be involved, are the strongest indicator that the 9/11 Truth Movement is in fact the 9/11 Untruth Movement.
Clearly, to say that conspiracy theories are unconvincing is a towering understatement; one has to be possessed by an obsessive predilection for sinister plots (and probably an overripe contempt for authority) to entertain the wild reasoning of conspiracists. Conspiracy theories depend critically on one thing: A complete absence of any objective test of any of the contentious points they raise. I have many times encountered this first hand. Along with my friends at NASA, I tried with great patience to explain to Apollo landing deniers that every anomaly they imagine can be quite easily put to rest with just a basic grasp of the science involved. Most often, all that a reasonable doubter needs is an elementary physics lesson to illuminate the holes in his pet theories. Unfortunately, reasonably objective conspiracists seem not to exist on Planet Earth. In my experience, they just glaze over when you’re trying to explain how the mission was actually achieved.
And yet, conspiracies of the kind they describe are unlikely to work in reality for precisely the same reason they were concocted in the first place—human nature. Human beings cannot keep a secret. If there ever were such a conspiracy, sooner or later at least one of the conspirators would blab—be it for ten minutes of fame, revenge, money, pressure, or simply a desire for salacious scandal. Michael Shermer tells of Gordon Liddy’s experience:
“But as G. Gordon Liddy once told me, the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Liddy should know as he was an aide to President Nixon and one of the masterminds behind the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off—in this case even something as simple as a hotel burglary was foiled by a security guard, and under pressure of congressional hearings and journalistic investigations many of the conspiracists cracked and talked. So many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the men in black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. Once again, there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy is, and the more people that would need to be involved to pull it off, the less likely it is true.”[16]
No one denies that people in powerful positions behave rather strangely most of the time. They seem to be too secretive for their own good, and they invite suspicion by their lack of transparency. But to automatically read conspiracy into their shyness with the truth is an overreaction. Sometimes, puzzling behaviour on the part of those in command of influential processes is driven by political savvy rather than by some sinister, covert drive for global domination.
Secrets are more often than not kept to simply protect the favoured ideology, but it must be said that the whole business of covert behaviour is overdone, as we’ve seen time and again with the “ -gates”—just ask Nixon about Watergate and Phil Jones about Climategate. Keeping secrets from the paying public is a dangerous game. But there is a world of difference between a hidden political agenda and conspiracy. Not all attempts at aligning with a favoured political position are sinister. Very often it’s no more than a desire to appear politically correct. The Nobel Prize is a case in point. Once a grand award for excellence in scientific research, the Nobel Prize has regressed to an iconic symbol now favouring scientists who play the political game for reward, instead of the hardy few pursuing the unadorned truth. The list of physics laureates tells the story.
The rewarding of closed-loop, model-aligned empirical results in the scientific field has become blatant over time, culminating with the 2013 physics prize going to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.” In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were rewarded for discovering the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation; in 2006, Mather and Smoot received the prize for revealing the blackbody nature and anisotropy in the CMBR; and in 2011, Riess, Perlmutter, and Schmidt were recognised for discovering in supernova data that universal expansion is speeding up. None of these conclusions could have been reached without selectively filtering the data through the standard models. Analysis absent a preconceived theoretical paradigm would have produced results starkly at odds with those that received the Nobel accolade.
In science, the process of canonisation is relatively easy to see, and we begin to get a glimmer of understanding of why we cannot resist falling in love with theoretical models. Ideally, the process should be:
· observation à measured data à conjecture à
· hypothesis à prediction à multiple independent tests à
· confirmation or falsification à hypothesis becomes theory or is abandoned à
· theory is tested à theory becomes law or is abandoned à
· laws are used to build models.
In practice, however, the process these days is far from that ideal. The pure form of the scientific method starts with observation or experience of something in nature that requires elucidation. What we have nowadays is conjecture (mathematical brainstorming) leading to hypotheses, which are built into a hypo-stack containing multiple tuneable parameters, which leads in turn to adjustable predictions, and the eventual creation of a fail-proof model of some or other aspect of existence. This type of model has a built-in, dogmatic defence against falsification. If the preferred conclusion to the logical processes within the model’s formalism is glorious enough, or awesome enough, then the model is inevitably canonised, no matter what anomalies it throws up.
A couple of years ago my friend and advisor Professor Paul Jackson emailed me from his redoubt Voelvlei, in the lee of South Africa’s Karkloof mountains. He attached an article from the September issue of American Scientist written by University of Cardiff astronomer Dr Mike Disney. It is entitled, “Modern Cosmology: Science or Folktale?” It struck a chord with me; resonated with ideas that were tumbling about in my mind. I met Dr Disney at the first Crisis in Cosmology Conference in 2005, where he presented a paper comparing the free parameters (aka tuning knobs) of Big Bang Theory with actual measurements. Mike Disney showed that with this type of modelling, one can adjust parameters without shame to achieve a perfect match between hypothesis and observation. The correlation between model and harsh reality becomes more tenuous with each twiddle, but that matters not a whit. The glory of the idea triumphs over practical considerations, and the disingenuous perpetrators of these things are smothered in Nobel Prizes. Cosmology is a barely-disguised fairy tale.
We will not successfully bring the matter of cosmology to a useable conclusion unless we first rid the whole affair of an effect I have named Investment Bias[17]. Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin tells amusingly in his book A Different Universe[18] of the “First Theorem of Science”, attributed to his colleague George Chapline: “It is impossible to convince a person of any true thing that will cost him money.”
No, it is not a sinister, political conspiracy; it is simply economics, and the currency is the dollar, plus, more significantly, exposure of individuals to the diabolical possibility that after so much effort, they might just have been wrong.
In the wake of the 19th century industrial revolution in Britain, technology boomed and science became a new god. The laws of thermodynamics—including the notion of entropy—came directly from the invention of steam engines (and not the other way around). For the first time in recorded history, engineers led social revolution. At the same time, astronomy flourished at dazzling speed. The technical excellence of optical instruments advanced in leaps and bounds, driven not by greed or territorial ambition, but by our innate exploratory drive. Our awe increased, and with it, our reverence for the new elders of the faith—scientists that pushed the frontiers of knowledge by dragging them ever outwards with an engine called imagination. Humankind’s adulation was reaching the threshold of fan hysteria.
The great danger in theoretical modelling lies in the seductiveness of having one’s personal opinions raised to the level of universal relevance. Before long, theorists start to believe that what they imagine is actually real, and that the novel products of their conjecture may legitimately be termed “discoveries”. In more arcane realms of science, this sort of delusion is rampant, and syncopated thoughts are called discoveries without embarrassment or shame. A recent announcement by the science forum Phys.org[19] is a pertinent example of what we talking about. The press release was greeted with enthusiasm in world of theoretical astronomy. Cosmologists were happy. Here is an excerpt:
“Writing in the journal Nature, Hendrik Schatz and colleagues describe a newly discovered process that happens within the star’s crust, located just below the surface. Until now, scientists thought that nuclear reactions within the crust contributed to the heating of the star’s surface.
“’We previously thought that these reactions were strong enough to heat up the crust,’ said Schatz, an MSU professor of physics and astronomy. ’But that’s not the case.’
“What the team of scientists found is that in the star’s crust near the surface there is a layer where nuclear reactions cause rapid neutrino cooling. Neutrinos are very elementary particles that are created through radioactive decay and pass very quickly through matter.”
Reading the quoted passage, I am given the strong impression that these gentlemen have actually discovered something in the crust of a neutron star. They are talking as if they have studied an event on an actual neutron star, and that it increases our understanding of these mysteriously fascinating cosmological objects. As an astrophysicist intensely interested in neutron stars and with privileged access to the literature surrounding them, I know that the assertion being put forward by the authors of the quoted study is patently false, and it tweaks the word discovery in a terribly misleading way.
It is crucially important to emphasise that the “discovery” of nuclear cooling in a neutron star is not an empirical event, but merely a nuance of the developing model, seen nowhere but on a computer screen. I think the issue is that the discovery was not made on a neutron star. No discoveries have ever been made on a neutron star. Apart from an ambiguous spectral signature assigned to them by the developers of the model, they have never been observed, much less studied in detail. It is just a model, with arbitrarily tuneable parameters. That’s fine, but they should make it clear in their announcement.
I would suggest that theorists would serve us better if they referred to observational data in developing models of hypothesised entities. The Sun is potentially a candidate progenitor of a neutron star, and what happens on the Sun can guide us in trying to imagine what would remain after the end game of a normal star.
Evidence of faith is yet more faith. I cannot say with certainty that Black Holes do not exist, any more than I could legitimately assert without any doubt whatsoever that God does not exist. Both would be physically impossible in terms of my grasp of physics, but then again, I’m still engaged in a life-long struggle to properly explain what I see and experience directly, stuff that I can in principle measure and put under my microscope. I see no useful purpose in incorporating into my understanding those flimsy ghosts of human superstition.
My rule of thumb is that patently irrational things are excluded from the body of knowledge I carry with me; my library of opinions should reflect those things that I am reasonably certain of, and which I can confidently build into my understanding of the cosmos. I become certain not from the degree of comfort that I derive from my beliefs, but from rational, testable evidence emanating from objective enquiry. Clearly, the evidence I am speaking of should not have come from filtering experimental or observational data through the sieve of a preferred model.
Make no mistake; this will be no easy task. The requirement of objectivity may well be one of the most difficult things one could ever expect of our eternally hapless human creature. But if we do not try, we are condemned by our desire for comfort to remain unto death imprisoned in the quicksand of our beliefs.
My friend Harry Rose made a comment on Facebook about the function of Planck’s constant h that I feel puts the erring of science into clear focus:
“…And this immaterial nonsense … is the basis of Quantum physics… it’s pseudo science (magical thinking, to be precise) and has become a religion (a philosophy accepted as truth). What you need to understand is this: in physics matter serves as the agent of objectivity…remove it and there is nothing by which theories of physics can be falsified, the consequences of which we can see high and wide. Physics has become a zoo of concepts that can’t be verified. The physics of ‘h’ is a road to nirvana, spiritually pleasing, but unscientific.”
I suppose, in the cold light of day, we’ll eventually come to realise that Black Holes (and Dark Matter, Dark Energy), like conspiracy theories and indeed religion, are just shadows in the minds of people inclined to think like that.
Congratulations. We have now come face-to-face with those foxy things that all this hullaballoo is about: Belief and instinct. As we shall see in the next chapter, they are irrevocably bound together in eternal conflict. It is that fiery battle that creates and hones our personalities, so I guess we ought to get a handle on it if we want to get anywhere.
“The road to hell isn’t paved with gold, it’s paved with faith.”
― Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not for Sale
[1] Ideological Momentum: The impetus of collective opinion; the tendency for supportive results to emerge and grow artificially from prior consensus or authority; also called “the snowball effect”; a synthetic trend in which we impute meaning in things just because we want meaning to be there for whatever deeply held reason, and then take that meaning forward even when it has been objectively falsified.
[2] Dialogic Process: The predisposition of devoted disciples to see miracles. (Max Mueller).
[3] Faith Drag: aka Ideological Inertia; a consequence of the power of belief over reason: The tendency of reason to trail belief; articles of faith that remain popularly in place despite the objective overturning of previously accepted supporting evidence; the time lag between a paradigm shift in science and a modification of belief to accommodate it.
[4] Hawking S.W., Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes(arxiv: 1401.5761).
[5] Woit, Peter. Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law New York: Basic Books, 2006.
[6] The Big Bang Theory TV comedy series, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. The three characters mentioned here were played by Jim Parsons (Sheldon), Johnny Galecki (Leonard), and Sara Gilbert (Leslie) respectively.
[7] Cosmological Black Holes are controversial theoretical constructs emanating from Einstein’s general Relativity Theory. They are said to be so dense that their gravitation does not allow even light to escape, and consequently they cannot be directly seen. However, even indirect observations (like a silhouette or spherical light-sink) have never been achieved. I must emphasise her that I do not know that Black Holes exist, or that they do not exist. Let’s just say that I have not been convinced by the evidence.
[8] Stark, Rodney, and Brainbridge, William (1996): A Theory of Religion. Rutgers University Press. p. 124.
[9] Sieghart, Mary Ann (The Times, October 26, 2001). “The cult figure we could do without”.
[10] Eminent physicist Dr Alexander Unzicker blew the whistle on the Large Hadron Collider cult in his highly recommended book The Higgs Fake – How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013)
[11] Shermer, Michael The Believing Brain (New York: Times Books, 2011).
[12] Goldwag, Arthur Cults, Conspiracies, & Secret Societies(New York: Vintage Books, 2009).
[13] Goldwag, Arthur, ibid.
[14] Popular Mechanics Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report, March 2005.
[16] Shermer, Michael The Believing Brain (New York: Times Books, 2011).
[17] Investment Bias—the subjective prejudice applied to scientific endeavour in order to align results with the outcome mooted in motivation for funding, and thereafter the pressures felt by scientists to maintain that position—is an extraordinarily powerful influence on scientific results, and needs to be clearly defined, recognised, and incorporated both into the literature and into data analysis, along with whichever other biases might skew the results.
[18] Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe (Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down) (Cambridge MA: Basic Books, 2005).

There is a bigger picture…

As a species, we do not behave rationally; we behave instinctively. We get sucked into gigantic organisms where we might feel a sense of belonging that takes no heed of where it is taking us and what it is doing to us. Mobs run on a combustible fuel made by instinct. Ken Burns, co-producer of an epic 18-hour documentary film called “The Vietnam War” that is about to be released to the world, had this to say in an interview with Christiane Amanpour: “War is essentially, obviously, dehumanising.”
It’s not. I know what Burns is trying to imply – he explains afterwards that one has to dehumanise the enemy in order to do war with it – but in the bigger picture, warfare is not in any rational way evidence of inhumanity. We call it inhuman or dehumanising because we cling to far-fetched, romanticised notions of what humanity is.
Homo sapiens is measurably an evolving species, as indeed every biological species appears to be. Evolution, as we understand it, is an ongoing process of sequential changes to the properties of an organism brought about by interaction with its habitat, with only one apparent goal: The success of the species. A species is successful if it thrives; in other words, if the number of reproducing adults increases continuously, meaning that for any given period, the number of viable births must significantly exceed the number of deaths. Thriving depends on how well that species competes for nurture in the biosphere, and that rests in turn upon natural selection doing a good job of enabling individuals most suited to propagation of the species to come to the fore. The genome is constantly being modified by the imperative to bear children and protect them until they can take over the job of procreation.
A superficial summary of the purpose of evolution suffices here. It is sufficient to allow us to grasp that the overarching determinants of our behaviour are extra-conscious. Our rational minds are merely spin doctors for behaviour that is actually directed by a greater, species-wide set of rules. Our thoughts and arguments might be able to change behaviour temporarily and locally, but that’s about it. Instinct is an output from a chemical stream far removed from our mental theatre, and which has aims and objectives that are not in the least bit democratic. It’s the ultimate dictatorship. Individuals within the evolving group merely put their chattering faces to work in discouraging other individuals or groups from interfering with their instincts in all sorts of artful ways. Allegiance to that higher power is not optional.
I’m afraid that any notion of what motivates humans to behave as they do collectively that claims that we do what we all do because of rational decisions we take, is delusion. Our conscious choices affect only the tiniest details of where societies go on their voyage of evolution. No participation in any war that I know of was purely the result of calculated reason. Sit down and talk to just about anyone – we all hate it. If that was what determined the outcome, there’d be no war. There’d be no partisanship or nationalism or patriotism or games of rugby either. Those things are in essence quite silly, but to a healthy member of the species, they are immensely compelling and even enjoyable. I love rugby and watch it religiously. It’s a violent territorial game that involves players hurting each other. You’d have to dig pretty deep to find where that love gels with my dedication to protecting animals from pain. One thing is certain, though: I did not come to love rugby by a process of logic. It was a visceral motivation, and I think it is closely related to my instincts.
This thing is much, much bigger than we tend to think it is. Nature doesn’t stop ten kilometres up from my garden. Galaxies conform to the patterns of nature, and each one contains billions of earths. Down here, we are animals, a type of primate, and what ethologists have discovered by studying animals and their behaviour is that we differ from other primates only in detail. Our overall behaviour follows the same rules as other animals generally, and other humans in geographically remote locations almost exactly. A cat born here follows the same methods and techniques as a cat in Mongolia, even if they are separated from other cats shortly after birth. The rules come to them chemically, and so do ours.
We have no real idea what our participation in social technology ultimately portends. We are part of these vast global ant colonies or beehives, serving the queen without knowing or questioning why we serve that queen. I don’t think we are even aware of what or who the organic director of our cyber family really is, but I can tell you this: It is not human.
Franklin Foes, author of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” may be onto something momentous, but don’t hold your breath. What we know intellectually won’t save the species. All it will do is adjust the amount of personal conflict we go through in our daily lives; for the worse, usually.
Anyway, this part of what Foes had to say on Amanpour:
“[big tech giants] play an outsized role in our lives. We see it with our phones, which we feel psychologically separated from, when they’re in another room we feel like a piece of our body is missing. And they’ve come to play this outsized role in the way we perceive reality, they stand between us and the news, and they play massive roles in shaping markets, in shaping democracy, in conversations, in shaping our future as a species (sic). So I want to make sure that as we ease into this future, that we do so with intention…we’re in the process of merging with machines.”
Something to think about.

Thinking about Thinking: Haidt and Pinker on opinions and truth

Quotes drawn from Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind, and Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate.
Jonathan Haidt (pp 299, 364, 336)
“Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.”
“Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult–perhaps impossible–to convince them they are wrong if you argue with them from outside of their moral matrix. I suggest that liberals might have even more difficulty understanding conservatives than the other way around, because liberals often have difficulty understanding how the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations have anything to do with morality. In particular, liberals often have difficulty seeing moral capital, which I defined as the resource that sustains a moral community.”
…I went to a used-book store to browse its political science section. As I scanned the shelves, one book jumped out at me–a thick brown book with one word on its spine: Conservatism. It was a volume of readings by the historian Jerry Muller. I started reading Muller’s introduction while standing in the aisle, but by the third page I had to sit down on the floor. I didn’t realise it until years later, but Muller’s essay was my second turning point.
Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the view that there exists a “transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under Sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.
Muller next distinguished conservatism from counter-Enlightenment. It is true that most resistance to the Enlightenment can be said to have been conservative, by definition (i.e., clerics and aristocrats were trying to conserve the old order). But Modern conservatism, Muller asserts, finds its origins within the main currents of enlightenment thinking, when such men as David Hume and Edmund Burke tried to develop a reasoned, pragmatic, and essentially utilitarian critique of the Enlightenment project. Here’s the line that quite literally floored me:
What makes social and political arguments conservative as opposed to orthodox is the critique of liberal or progressive arguments takes place on the enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness based on the use of reason.
As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances. Could it be? Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science? Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?
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Steven Pinker (p 232)
And it can lead to risk experts to speak one language and ordinary people to hear another. In hearings for a proposed nuclear waste site, an expert might present a fault tree that lays out the conceivable sequences of events by which radioactivity might escape. For example, erosion, cracks in the bedrock, accidental drilling, or improper sealing might cause the release of radioactivity into groundwater. In turn, groundwater movement, volcanic activity, or an impact of a large meteorite might cause the release of radioactive wastes into the biosphere. Each train of events can be assigned a probability, and the aggregate probability of an accident from all the causes can be estimated. When people hear these analyses, however, they are not reassured but become more fearful than ever–they hadn’t realised there are so many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.
None of this implies that people are dunces or that “experts” should ram unwanted technologies down their throats. Even with a complete understanding of the risks, reasonable people might choose to forego certain technological advances. If something is viscerally revolting, a democracy should allow people to reject it whether or not it is “rational” by some criterion that ignores our psychology. Many people would reject vegetables grown in sanitised human waste and would avoid an elevator with a glass floor, not because they believe these things are dangerous but because the thought gives them the willies. If they have the same reaction to eating genetically modified foods or living next to a nuclear power plant, they should have the opportunity of rejecting them, too, as long as they do not try to force their preferences on others or subject them to the costs.
Also, even if technocrats provide reasonable estimates of a risk (which is itself an iffy enterprise), they cannot dictate what level of risk people ought to accept. People might object to a nuclear power plant that has a miniscule risk of a meltdown not because they overestimate the risk but because they feel that the costs of the catastrophe, no matter how remote, are too dreadful. And of course any of these tradeoffs may be unacceptable if people perceive that the benefits would go to the wealthy and powerful while they themselves absorb the risks.
Nonetheless, understanding the difference between our best science and our ancient ways of thinking can only make our individual and collective decisions better informed. It can help scientists and journalists explain a new technology in the face of the most common misunderstandings. And it can help all of us understand the technology so that we can accept or reject it on grounds that we can justify to ourselves and to others.
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The Galileo of Palomar

That I could have done something in my life that led to my being asked to contribute a chapter to a book compiled in honour of the late Halton “Chip” Arp is deeply humbling. I could call Chip my friend, and that means a tremendous amount to me. Thanks go to all who put this tribute together – I’m extremely grateful to be an associate of all of you.

Darwin by Foster

From Why We Bite the Invisible Hand by Peter Foster
That species could be deliberately modified was clear from the selective breeding of dogs and other animals, as well as plants, that had been carried on for thousands of years. Promise of an evolutionary theory was also seen in common embryonic forms of many species. There were also vestigial features, such as male nipples, which suggest a biological purpose made redundant over time. To these observations were added, thanks to Darwin’s travels, questions about the geographical distribution of, and environmental influence on, species: that is, how similar species appeared in similar environments in far distant parts of the world.
Darwin spent more than twenty years mulling over these issues in the bucolic surroundings of his Kent estate, going for thrice-daily walks along his “thinking path.” Then in 1859, he was shocked when another naturalist, the self-taught Alfred Russel Wallace, sent him a letter outlining a theory almost identical to his own. Darwin was forced to produce The Origin of the Species in a relatively short time, and to present it beside that of Wallace, who generously deferred to Darwin’s superior scientific status.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that life forms evolve–and split into different species–by a process of mutation between generations. Those mutations that make a life form more “fit” to survive and procreate within its relevant environment are more likely to be passed on, further mutated, tested once more for fitness and on and on. The creation of new species occurs when life forms branch off via mutation and can no longer interbreed with those on the home branch. Darwin noted how, in such a process of evolution and speciation, the natural selection of adaptive random variations could give the appearance of intentional design.
Genes, as we now know, carry the design specification for living creatures. Genes split during reproduction. Mutation comes via “transcription error.” Most mutations are maladaptive, but occasionally one increases its organism’s chance of reproduction. Hence, “useful” adaptions–which marginally increase speed or strength or reaction times or smell or eyesight, or any of a multiplicity of interrelated characteristics or tendencies–are more likely to be passed on.
The notion of an evolved–and thus limited and potentially biased–mind tends to be inconceivable. Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, couldn’t bring himself to countenance the mind as merely a function of an evolved organ. To ask what kind of thing the mind is, we start by asking how, and in response to what challenges, it evolved. Our mental apparatus evolved to help us survive in our immediate environment, but it wasn’t just a physical world of colours, odours, shapes, distances, masses, velocities, trajectories, poisons and predators; it was also a social world. Man formed society, and society formed man. The key issue was the nature of that chicken-and-egg relationship.
Our minds–defined as what our brains do–developed along with, and as a computing and guiding mechanism for, our physical and social interactions. The key insight of evolutionary psychology is that as much as 99% of that evolution may have taken place while we were hunter-gatherers. Thus our brains and minds were overwhelmingly formed when we lived in small, closely related tribal groups, whose existence revolved around hunting, food gathering, sex, fighting, and “local politics.”
There is a huge and growing literature on humans’ often unconscious sexual attitudes, preferences and strategies, and how they differ between men and women. For example, males tend to be more concerned about sexual infidelity, women about emotional infidelity. That’s because it’s more adaptive for males to be concerned with paternity (whether a child is likely to have their genes), while women tend to be more concerned about male “commitment,” which goes with protection and access to resources for their children (whether those children are the progeny of the committed man or not).
The fact that contraceptive technology has made men’s jealousy “rationally” redundant doesn’t make much difference to our moral sentiments. As journalist Robert Wright wryly points out in his book The Moral Animal, “For the average husband, the fact that his wife inserted a diaphragm before copulating with her tennis instructor will not be a major source of consolation.” Similarly, Ayn Rand’s reaction to Nathaniel Branden’s emotional desertion was certainly not related to any concerns that he wasn’t going to be around to look after the babies she was never going to have. Both these examples indicate how emotions evolved to serve genetically “rational” ends, while driving us, their vehicles, crazy.

On Appeasing Envy

Henry Hazlett “On Appeasing Envy.” The Freeman. March 1972. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education).

Any attempt to equalize wealth or income by forced redistribution must only tend to destroy wealth and income. Historically the best would-be equalizers have ever succeeded in doing is to equalize downward. This has even been caustically described as their intention. “Your levellers,” said Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century, “wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.” And in our own day we find even an eminent liberal like the late Mr. Justice Holmes writing: “I have no respect for the passion for equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy.”[17]

At least a handful of writers have begun to recognize explicitly the all-pervasive role played by envy or the fear of envy in life and in contemporary political thought. In 1966, Helmut Schoeck, professor of sociology at the University of Mainz, devoted a penetrating book to the subject.[18]

There can be little doubt that many egalitarians are motivated at least partly by envy, while still others are motivated, not so much by any envy of their own, as by the fear of it in others, and the wish to appease or satisfy it.

But the latter effort is bound to be futile. Almost no one is completely satisfied with his status in relation to his fellows. In the envious the thirst for social advancement is insatiable. As soon as they have risen one rung in the social or economic ladder, their eyes are fixed upon the next. They envy those who are higher up, no matter by how little. In fact, they are more likely to envy their immediate friends or neighbours, who are just a little bit better off, than celebrities or millionaires who are incomparably better off. The position of the latter seems unattainable, but of the neighbour who has just a minimal advantage they are tempted to think: “I might almost be in his place.”

The Urge to Deprive Others

Moreover, the envious are more likely to be mollified by seeing others deprived of some advantage than by gaining it for themselves. It is not what they lack that chiefly troubles them, but what others have. The envious are not satisfied with equality; they secretly yearn for superiority and revenge. In the French revolution of 1848, a woman coal-heaver is reported to have remarked to a richly dressed lady: “Yes, madam, everything’s going to be equal now; I shall go in silks and you’ll carry coal.”

Envy is implacable. Concessions merely whet its appetite for more concessions. As Schoeck writes: “Man’s envy is at its most intense where all are almost equal; his calls for redistribution are loudest when there is virtually nothing to redistribute.”[19]

(We should, of course, always distinguish that merely negative envy which begrudges others their advantage from the positive ambition that leads men to active emulation, competition, and creative effort of their own.)

But the accusation of envy, or even of the fear of others’ envy, as the dominant motive for any redistribution proposal, is a serious one to make and a difficult if not impossible one to prove. Moreover, the motives for making a proposal, even if ascertainable, are irrelevant to its inherent merits.

We can, nonetheless, apply certain objective tests. Sometimes the motive of appeasing other people’s envy is openly avowed. Socialists will often talk as if some form of superbly equalized destitution were preferable to “maldistributed” plenty. A national income that is rapidly growing in absolute terms for practically everyone will be deplored because it is making the rich richer. An implied and sometimes avowed principle of the British Labour Party leaders after World War II was that “Nobody should have what everybody can’t have.”

Equality, Yes; Abundance, No!

But the main objective test of a social proposal is not merely whether it emphasizes equality more than abundance, but whether it goes further and attempts to promote equality at the expense of abundance. Is the proposed measure intended primarily to help the poor, or to penalize the rich? And would it in fact punish the rich at the cost of also hurting everyone else?

This is the actual effect, as we saw earlier,[20] of steeply progressive income taxes and confiscatory inheritance taxes. These are not only counterproductive fiscally (bringing in less revenue from the higher brackets than lower rates would have brought), but they discourage or confiscate the capital accumulation and investment that would have increased national productivity and real wages.

Most of the confiscated funds are then dissipated by the government in current consumption expenditures. The long-run effect of such tax rates, of course, is to leave the working poor worse off than they would otherwise have been.

There are economists who will admit all this, but will answer that it is nonetheless politically necessary to impose such near confiscatory taxes, or to enact similar redistributive measures, in order to placate the dissatisfied and the envious—in order, even, to prevent actual revolution.

Appeasement Provokes Envy

This argument is the reverse of the truth. The effect of trying to appease envy is to provoke more of it. The most popular theory of the French Revolution is that it came about because the economic condition of the masses was becoming worse and worse, while the king and the aristocracy remained completely blind to it. But Tocqueville, one of the most penetrating social observers and historians of his or any time, put forward an exactly opposite explanation. Let me state it first as summarized by an eminent French commentator in 1899: Here is the theory invented by Tocqueville…. The lighter a yoke, the more it seems insupportable; what exasperates is not the crushing burden but the impediment; what inspires to revolt is not oppression but humiliation. The French of 1789 were incensed against the nobles because they were almost the equals of the nobles; it is the slight difference that can be appreciated, and what can be appreciated that counts. The eighteenth century middle class was rich, in a position to fill almost any employment, almost as powerful as the nobility. It was exasperated by this “almost” and stimulated by the proximity of its goal; impatience is always provoked by the final strides.[21]

I have quoted this passage because I do not find the theory stated in quite this condensed form by Tocqueville himself. Yet this is essentially the theme of his L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution, and he presented impressive factual documentation to support it.

As the prosperity which I have just described began to extend in France, the community nevertheless became more unsettled and uneasy; public discontent grew fierce; hatred against all established institutions increased. The nation was visibly advancing toward a revolution…. It might be said that the French found their position the more intolerable precisely where it had become better. Surprising as this fact is, history is full of such contradictions.

It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into revolution. It happens most frequently that a people, which had supported the most crushing laws without complaint, and apparently as if they were unfelt, throws them off with violence as soon as the burden begins to be diminished. The state of things destroyed by a revolution is almost always somewhat better than that which immediately preceded it; and experience has shown that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually that when it enters upon the work of reform. Nothing short of great political genius can save a sovereign who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression.

The evils which were endured with patience so long as they were inevitable seem intolerable as soon as a hope can be entertained of escaping from them. The abuses which are removed seem to lay bare those which remain, and to render the sense of them more acute; the evil has decreased, it is true, but the perception of the evil is more keen….

No one any longer contended in 1780 that France was in a state of decline; there seemed, on the contrary, to be just then no bounds to her progress. Then it was that the theory of the continual and indefinite perfectibility of man took its origin. Twenty years before nothing was to be hoped of the future: then nothing was to be feared. The imagination, grasping at this near and unheard of felicity, caused men to overlook the advantages they already possessed, and hurried them forward to something new.[22]

Aggravated by Sympathy

The expressions of sympathy that came from the privileged class itself only aggravated the situation: The very men who had most to fear from the fury of the people declaimed loudly in their presence on the cruel injustice under which the people had always suffered. They pointed out to each other the monstrous vices of those institutions which had weighed most heavily upon the lower orders: they employed all their powers of rhetoric in depicting the miseries of the common people and their ill-paid labour; and thus they infuriated while they endeavoured to relieve them.[23]

Tocqueville went on to quote at length from the mutual recriminations of the king, the nobles, and the parliament in blaming each other for the wrongs of the people. To read them now is to get the uncanny feeling that they are plagiarizing the rhetoric of the limousine liberals of our own day. All this does not mean that we should refrain from taking any measure truly calculated to relieve hardship and reduce poverty. What it does mean is that we should never take governmental measures merely for the purpose of trying to assuage the envious or appease the agitators, or to buy off a revolution.

Such measures, betraying weakness and a guilty conscience, only lead to more far-reaching and even ruinous demands. A government that pays social blackmail will precipitate the very consequences that it fears.

 

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[17] The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski (ed. M. De Wolfe Howe, 2 vol. Cambridge, Mass., 1953). From Holmes to Laski, May 12, 1927, p. 942.

[18] Helmut Schoeck, Envy (English translation, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969).

[19] Ibid., p. 303.

[20] “Should we Divide the Wealth?” in The Freeman, February, 1972, p. 100.

[21] Emile Faguet, Politicians and Moralists of the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Little, Brown; 1928), p. 93.

[22] Alexis de Tocqueville, On the State of Society in France before the Revolution of 1789. (London: John Murray, 1856) pp. 321–324. Also available as The Old Regime and the French Revolution in a Doubleday paperback.

[23] Ibid., pp. 329–330.

A Break with Prevailing Faith by Leonard Read,

Those who know me from these pages and others might be surprised that I share this Leonard Read essay with you; the three assumptions he declares towards the end of the essay are in my view very “new-age”-type hokum. Perhaps I have not emphasised enough another of my principles – I find partisan extremes distasteful. It’s as if we have no power of discrimination and will somehow be contaminated by exposure to the other side. There are conservatives who will not read a word written by a liberal, and atheists who spurn all that is written by believers, and vice versa. Partisans imagine that those who hold an opposing opinion thereby develop demonic horns and the devil’s tongue. This kind of blind fervour in the sanctity of one’s own opinions is what drove me to write Socks, and motivates me to put before you Read’s philosophical piece (below). Whilst I reject his assumptions, I nevertheless learn a great deal from what he says. I hope you can too.
 
A Break with Prevailing Faith
by Leonard Read, “A Break with Prevailing Faith.” In Anything That’s Peaceful, 1–9. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The
Foundation for Economic Education, 1998.
 
Galileo was called on the carpet, tried by the Inquisition, and put in prison because he affirmed the theory of Copernicus that the solar system does not revolve around our earth. The truth as he perceived it was a break with the prevailing faith; he committed the unpardonable sin of affronting the mores. This was his guilt.
Americans—enlightened as we suppose ourselves to be—are inclined to view with scorn that illiberal attitude of some three centuries ago which sought to keep the light of new evidence away from the fallacies of that time. Fie on such childish intolerance; we are not afraid of truth; let the light shine in!
Perhaps we should pause for a moment and carefully scrutinize what our own mirror reveals. A letter in the morning mail highlights my point: this woman had visited the librarian of the high school to which she had made a gift of The Freeman, a monthly journal that presents, dispassionately but consistently, the rationale of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy, along with its moral and spiritual antecedents. She discovered that the journal was not among the periodicals displayed for student perusal, that it had been discreetly relegated to the teachers’ reading room. What was the reason for this under-the-rug procedure? The librarian explained, “The Freeman is too conservative.” My correspondent, distraught by this illiberal attitude—by this attempt to keep students from knowing about the freedom philosophy—asked of me, “What can we do about this?”
The answer to this question is to be found in an old English proverb, “Truth will out!” As it did with Galileo’s theory, so it will do with the ideology of freedom! However, if we would conserve our energies and act in the best interests of the freedom philosophy, we will do well to reflect on the most effective way to lend a hand to the philosophy. Suppose, for instance, Galileo had exerted pressure on the Inquisitors to purvey that fragment of truth he had come upon. The folly of such a tactic is clear: His truth in the hands of his enemies; heaven forbid! Likewise, it is folly for us to exert influence on those of the collectivistic faith—be they librarians, teachers, book reviewers or bookstore owners, politicians, or whoever—to carry the message of individuality and its essential concomitant, freedom in exchange. If one wishes to win, never choose teammates who are intent on losing the contest. Indeed, such folks should be scrupulously avoided as partners.
The way to give truth a hand is to pursue a do-it-yourself policy. Each must do his own seeking and revealing. Such success as one experiences will uncover and attract all the useful, helpful, sympathetic teammates one’s pursuit deserves. This appears to be truth’s obstacle course—no shortcuts allowed.
A Dark Age is followed by an Enlightenment; devolution and evolution follow on each other’s heels; myth and truth have each their day, now as ever. These opposites—action and reaction—occur with the near regularity of a pendulum, here as elsewhere, the vaunted “common sense of the American people” notwithstanding.
The Faith in Collectivism
 
Our time, as did Galileo’s, witnesses an enormous intolerance toward ideas which challenge the prevailing faith, that faith today being collectivism—worldwide. Americans during the past three or four decades have swung overwhelmingly toward the myths implicit in statism; but, more than this, they have become actually antagonistic to, and afraid of identification with, free market, private property, limited government principles. Indeed, such is the impact of the collectivistic myth, they shy away from any idea or person or institution which the political welfarists and planners choose to label as “rightists.” I have laboured full time in this controversy for more than thirty years and, having a good memory, these shifts are as clear to me as if they had occurred in the last few moments, or I’d just viewed a time-lapse movie of these events. Were I unaware that such actions and reactions are inevitable in the scheme of things—particularly when observing such behaviour by businessmen as well as by teachers, clergymen, and labour officials—I would be unable to believe my eyes.
Yet, truth will out! While myth and truth contend in their never-ending fray, truth inches ahead over the millennia as might be expected from the evolutionary process. My faith says that this is ordained, if we be worthy, for what meaning can truth have except our individual perception of it?
This is to say that among the numerous imperatives of truth is that many individuals do their utmost in searching for it and reporting whatever their search reveals. Worthiness also requires of those who would don her mantle a quality of character which I shall call incorruptibility. The more individuals in whom this quality finds refinement the better, and the sooner more truth will out. This quality is too important to suffer neglect for brevity’s sake; so let me spell it out.
If my claim for incorruptibility is to hold water, the notion of corruption will have to be refined beyond its generally accepted identification with bribery, stealing, boldfaced lying, and the like. Deplorable as are these specimens, they wreak but minor havoc compared to the more subtle corruptions of the intellect and the soul which, unfortunately, are rarely thought of—or even felt—as corruption.
The level of corruption I wish to examine was suggested to me by a friend’s honest confession, “I am as much corrupted by my loves as by my hates.” Few of us have succeeded in rising above this weakness; indeed, it is difficult to find one who has. Where is the individual who has so freed himself from his affections for or prejudices against persons, parties, creeds that he can utterly disregard these passions and weigh each and every act or proposal or idea strictly on its own merits—as if he were unaware of its source? Where is the man who can say “yes” or “no” to friend or foe with equal detachment? So rare are such individuals that we run the risk of concluding that no such person exists.
However, we must not despair. Recently, I was presented with an idea by an unknown author—in these words: “There is no such thing as a broken commitment.” Observing on many occasions that people do actually go back on their bond, I thought this to be at odds with the facts of life. Later, its meaning was explained to me: An unbroken commitment in this context means something more than paying debts, keeping promises, observing contracts. A man has a commitment to his own conscience, that is, to truth as his highest conscience discerns truth, and every word and deed must be an accurate reflection thereof. No pressure of fame or fortune or love or hate can even tempt such a person to compromise his integrity. At this level of life there can be no broken commitment.
Incorruptibility in its intellectual and spiritual sense refers to a higher order of men than is generally known to exist. It relates to men whose moral nature is such that infidelity to conscience is as unthinkable to them as stealing pennies from a child’s bank is to us. Folks who would deviate from their own highest concept of righteousness simply are not of this order nor are they likely to be aware that there is such an order of men.
An interesting sidelight on the individual whose prime engagement is with his own conscience and who is not swerved by popular acclaim or the lack of it, is that he seldom knows who his incorruptible brothers are. They are, by their nature—all of them—a quiet lot; indeed, most of us are lucky if we ever spot one.
Signs of Corruption
 
At this moment in history, this order of men must be distressingly small. The reason for this opinion is the “respectability” which presently attends all but the basest forms of corruption. Almost no shame descends upon seekers after office who peddle pure hokum in exchange for votes; they sell their souls for political power and become the darlings of the very people on whom their wiles are practiced.
Business and professional men and women, farmers and workers, through their associations and lobbies, clergymen from their pulpits, and teachers before their students shamelessly advocate special privileges: the feathering of the nests of some at the expense of others—and by coercion! For so doing they receive far more pious acclaim than censure. Such are the signs of widespread corruption.
As further evidence of intellectual corruption, reflect on the growing extent to which excuses are advanced as if they were reasons. In the politico-economic realm, for example, we put an embargo on goods from China because they are, in fact, competitive. But professing to favour free, competitive enterprise, and hesitating to confess that we are against competition, we corrupt ourselves and offer the excuse that these goods are “red.” Caviar from Russia—noncompetitive—is imported by the ton but is just as “red” as a linen tablecloth from China. This type of corruption occurs on an enormous scale, but is shrugged off as “good business.” Things would be otherwise if incorruptibility were more common. If I am not mistaken, several rare, incorruptible oversouls have passed my way during these last three decades.
For one thing, they were different. But it cannot be said that they stood out from the rest of us for, to borrow a phrase from a Chinese sage, they all operated in “creative quietness.” While not standing out, they were outstanding—that is, their positions were always dictated by what they believed to be right. This was their integrity. They consistently, everlastingly sought for the right. This was their intelligence. Furthermore, their integrity and intelligence imparted to them a wisdom few ever attain: a sense of being men, not gods, and, as a consequence, an awareness of their inability to run the lives of others. This was their humility. Lastly, they never did to others that which they would not have others do to them. This was their justice.
Truth will out, with enough of these incorruptible souls!
The Truth about Freedom
 
Now, having staked out the ideal, it behoves me to approximate it as best I can, which is to say, to present the truth as I see it, in this instance, as it bears on the free market and related institutions. By my title, Anything That’s Peaceful, I mean let anyone do anything he pleases that’s peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver mail or educate or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful; limit society’s agency of organized force—government—to juridical and policing functions, tabulating the do-nots and prescribing the penalties against un-peaceful actions; let the government do this and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!
All of this, I concede, is an affront to the mores. So be it!
One more point: discussion of ideological questions is more or less idle unless there be an awareness of what the major premise is. At what is the writer aiming? Is he doing his reasoning with some purpose in mind? If so, what is it?
I do not wish to leave anyone in the dark concerning my basic point of reference. Realizing years ago that I couldn’t possibly be consistent in my positions unless I reasoned from a basic premise— fundamental point of reference—set about it by asking one of the most difficult of questions: What is man’s earthly purpose?
I could find no answer to that question without bumping, head on, into three of my basic assumptions. The first derives from the observation that man did not create himself, for there is evidence aplenty that man knows very little about himself, thus:
1. The primacy and supremacy of an Infinite Consciousness;
2. The expansibility of individual consciousness, this being demonstrably possible; and
3. The immortality of the individual spirit or consciousness, our earthly moments being not all there is to it—this being something I know but know not how to demonstrate.
With these assumptions, the answer to the question, “What is man’s earthly purpose?” comes clear: It is to expand one’s own consciousness into as near a harmony with Infinite Consciousness as is within the power of each, or, in more lay terms, to see how nearly one can come to a realization of those creative potentialities peculiar to one’s own person, each of us being different in this respect.
This is my major premise with which the reader may or may not agree but he can, at least, decide for himself whether or not the following chapters are reasoned logically from this basic point of reference.
The ideas offered here have been brewing for several years. Many of them, though slightly rephrased, have appeared elsewhere as separate essays. My aim now is to gather those fragments into an integrated, free market theme.

False Remedies for Poverty By Henry Hazlitt

By Henry Hazlitt The Freeman. February 1971. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education). Edited by Hilton Ratcliffe.

From the beginning of history sincere reformers as well as demagogues have sought to abolish or at least to alleviate poverty through state action. In most cases their proposed remedies have only served to make the problem worse. The most frequent and popular of these proposed remedies has been the simple one of seizing from the rich to give to the poor. This remedy has taken a thousand different forms, but they all come down to this. The wealth is to be “shared,” to be “redistributed,” to be “equalized.” In fact, in the minds of many reformers it is not poverty that is the chief evil but inequality.

These direct redistribution schemes (including “land reform” and “the guaranteed income”) are so immediately relevant to the problem of poverty that they warrant separate treatment. Here I must content myself with reminding the reader that all schemes for redistributing or equalizing incomes or wealth must undermine or destroy incentives at both ends of the economic scale. They must reduce or abolish the incentives of the unskilled and shiftless to improve their condition by their own efforts, and even the able and industrious will see little point in earning anything beyond what they are allowed to keep. These redistribution schemes must inevitably reduce the size of the pie to be redistributed. They can only level down. Their long-run effect must be to reduce production and lead toward national impoverishment.

The problem we face here is that the false remedies for poverty are almost infinite in number. An attempt at a thorough refutation of any single one of them would run to disproportionate length. But some of these false remedies are so widely regarded as real cures or mitigations of poverty that if I do not refer to them, I may be accused of having undertaken a comprehensive analysis of the remedies for poverty while ignoring some of the most obvious. What I shall do, as a compromise, is to take up some of the more popular of the alleged remedies for poverty and indicate briefly in each case the nature of their shortcomings or the chief fallacies involved in them.[11]

Unions and Strikes

The most widely practiced “remedy” for low incomes in the last two centuries has been the formation of monopolistic labor unions and the use of the strike threat. In nearly every country today this has been made possible to its present extent by government policies that permit and encourage coercive union tactics and inhibit or restrict counteractions by employers. As a result of union exclusiveness, of deliberate inefficiency, of featherbedding, of disruptive strikes and strike-threats, the long-run effect of customary union policies has been to discourage capital investment and to make the average real wage of the whole body of workers lower, and not higher, than it would otherwise have been.

Nearly all of these customary union policies have been dishearteningly shortsighted. When unions insist on the employment of men that are not necessary to do a job (requiring unneeded firemen on Diesel locomotives; forbidding the gang size of dock workers to be reduced below, say, 20 men no matter what the size of the task; demanding that a newspaper’s own printers must duplicate advertising copy that comes in already set in type, etc.) the result may be to preserve or create a few more jobs for specific men in the short run, but only at the cost of making impossible the creation of an equivalent or greater number of more productive jobs for others.

The same criticism applies to the age-old union policy of opposing the use of labor-saving machinery. Labour-saving machinery is only installed when it promises to reduce production costs. When it does that, it either reduces prices and leads to increased production and sales of the commodity being produced, or it makes more profits available for increased reinvestment in other production. In either case its long-run effect is to substitute more productive jobs for the less productive jobs it eliminates. Yet as late as 1970, a book appeared by a writer who enjoys an exalted reputation as an economist in some quarters, opposing the introduction of labour-saving machines in the underdeveloped countries on the ground that they “decrease the demand for labour”![12]

The natural conclusion from this would be that the way to maximize jobs is to make all labour as inefficient and unproductive as possible.

Overtime Rates

A similar judgment must be passed on all “spread-the-work” schemes. The existing Federal Wage-Hour Law has been on the books for many years. It provides that the employer must pay a 50 per cent penalty overtime rate for all hours that an employee works in excess of 40 a week, no matter how high the employee’s regular hourly rate of pay.

This provision was inserted at the insistence of the unions. Its purpose was to make it so costly for the employer to work men overtime that he would be obliged to take on additional workers. Experience shows that the provision has in fact had the effect of narrowly restricting the length of the working week. In the ten-year period, 1960 to 1969 inclusive, the average annual workweek in manufacturing varied only between a low of 39.7 hours in 1960 and a high of 41.3 hours in 1966.

Even monthly changes do not show much variation. The lowest average working week in manufacturing in the fourteen months from June, 1969 to July, 1970 was 39.7 hours and the highest was 41 hours. But it does not follow that the hour-restriction either created more long-term jobs or yielded higher total payrolls than would have existed without the compulsory 50 per cent overtime rate. No doubt in isolated cases more men have been employed than would otherwise have been. But the chief effect of the overtime law has been to raise production costs. Firms already working full standard time often have to refuse new orders because they cannot afford to pay the penalty overtime necessary to fill those orders. They cannot afford to take on new employees to meet what may be only a temporarily higher demand because they may also have to install an equivalent number of additional machines.

Higher production costs mean higher prices. They must therefore mean narrowed markets and smaller sales. They mean that fewer goods and services are produced. In the long run the interests of the whole body of workers must be adversely affected by compulsory overtime penalties. All this is not to argue that there ought to be a longer workweek, but rather that the length of the work week, and the scale of overtime rates, ought to be left to voluntary agreement between individual workers or unions and their employers. In any case, legal restrictions on the length of the working week cannot in the long run increase the number of jobs. To the extent that they can do that in the short run, it must necessarily be at the expense of production and of the real income of the whole body of workers.

Minimum Wage Laws

 

This brings us to the subject of minimum-wage laws. It is profoundly discouraging that in the second half of the twentieth century, in what is supposed to be an age of great economic sophistication, the United States should have such laws on its books, and that it should still be necessary to protest against a nostrum so futile and mischievous. It hurts most the very marginal workers it is designed to help.

I can only repeat what I have written in another place.[13] When a law exists that no one is to be paid less than $64 for a 40-hour week, then no one whose services are not worth $64 a week to an employer will be employed at all. We cannot make a man worth a given amount by making it illegal for anyone to offer him less. We merely deprive him of the right to earn the amount that his abilities and opportunities would permit him to earn, while we deprive the community of the moderate services he is capable of rendering. In brief, for a low wage we substitute unemployment.

But I cannot devote more space to this subject here. I refer the reader to the careful reasoning and statistical studies of such eminent economists as Professors Yale Brozen, Arthur Burns, Milton Friedman, Gottfried Haberler, and James Tobin, who have emphasized, for example, how much our continually rising legal minimum wage requirements have increased unemployment in recent years, especially among teen-aged Negroes.

The Mounting Burden of Welfare Plans and Taxes

 

In the last generation there has been enacted in almost every major country of the world a whole sackful of “social” measures, most of them having the ostensible purpose of “helping the poor” in one respect or another. These include not only direct relief, but unemployment benefits, old-age benefits, sickness benefits, food subsidies, rent subsidies, farm subsidies, veterans’ subsidies—in seemingly endless profusion. Many people receive not only one but many of these subsidies. The programs often overlap and duplicate each other.

What is their net effect? All of them must be paid for by that chronically forgotten man, the taxpayer. In perhaps half the cases, Paul is in effect taxed to pay for his own benefits, and gains nothing on net balance (except that he is forced to spend his earned money in other directions than he himself would have chosen). In the remaining cases, Peter is forced to pay for Paul’s benefits. When any one of these schemes, or a further expansion of it, is being proposed, its political sponsors always dwell on what a generous and compassionate government should pay to Paul; they neglect to mention that this additional money must be seized from Peter. In order that Paul may receive the equivalent of more than he earns, Peter must be allowed to keep less than he earns.

The mounting burden of taxation not only undermines individual incentives to increased work and earnings, but in a score of ways discourages capital accumulation and distorts, un-balances, and shrinks production. Total real wealth and income is made smaller than it would otherwise be. On net balance there is more poverty rather than less.

But increased taxation is so unpopular that most of these “social” handout schemes are originally enacted without enough increased taxation to pay for them. The result is chronic government deficits, paid for by the issuance of additional paper money. And this has led in the last quarter-century to the constant depreciation of the purchasing power of practically every currency in the world. All creditors, including the buyers of government bonds, insurance policy holders, and the depositors in savings banks, are systematically cheated. Once more the chief victims are the working and saving families with moderate incomes. Yet everywhere this monetary inflation, eventually so disruptive and ruinous to orderly balanced production, is rationalized by politicians and even by putative economists as necessary for “full employment” and “economic growth.” The truth is that if this monetary inflation is persisted in, it can only lead to economic disaster.

Price and Wage Controls

 

Many of the very people who originally advocate inflation (or the policies which inevitably lead to it), when they see its consequences of raising prices and money wages, propose to cure the situation, not by halting the inflation, but by having the government impose price and wage controls. But all such attempts to suppress the symptoms enormously increase the harm done. Price and wage controls, to precisely the extent that they can be made temporarily effective, only distort, disrupt, and reduce production—again leading toward impoverishment.

Yet here again, as with the other false remedies for poverty, it would be an unjustifiable digression to spell out in detail all the fallacies and evil consequences of special subsidies, improvident government spending, deficit financing, monetary inflation, and price-and-wage controls. I have myself dealt with these subjects in two previous books: The Failure of the New Economics[14] and What You Should Know About Inflation;[15] and there is, of course, an extensive literature on the subject. The chief point to be reiterated here is that these policies do not help to cure poverty.

Another false remedy for poverty is the progressive income tax, as well as a very heavy burden of capital-gains taxes, inheritance taxes, and corporate income taxes. All of these have the effect of discouraging production, investment, and capital accumulation. To that extent they must prolong rather than cure poverty.

Outright Socialism

 

We come now to the final false remedy for poverty to be considered in this article—outright socialism. Now the word “socialism” is loosely used to refer to at least two distinct proposals, usually but not necessarily tied together in the minds of the proposers. One of these is the redistribution of wealth or income—if not to make incomes equal, at least to make them much more nearly equal than they are in a market economy. But the majority of those who propose this objective today think that it can be achieved by retaining the mechanisms of private enterprise and then taxing the bigger incomes to subsidize the smaller incomes.

By “outright socialism” I refer to the Marxist proposal for “the public ownership and control of the means of production.”

Now one of the most striking differences between the 1970’s and the 1950’s, or even the 1920’s, is the rise in the political popularity of Socialism Two—the redistribution of income—and the decline in the political popularity of Socialism One—government ownership and management. The reason is that the latter, in the last half-century, has been so widely tried. Particularly in Europe there is now a long history of government ownership and management of such “public utilities” as the railroads, the electric light and power industries, the telegraph and telephone. And everywhere the history has been much the same—deficits practically always, and in the main poor service compared with what private enterprise supplied. The mail service, a government monopoly nearly everywhere, is also nearly everywhere notorious for its deficits, inefficiency, and inertia. (The contrast with the performance of “private” industry is often blurred, however, in the United States, for example, by the slow strangulation of the railroads, telephone, and power companies by government regulation and harassment.)

As a result of this history, most of the socialist parties in Europe find that they can no longer attract votes by promising to nationalize even more industries. But what is still not recognized by the socialists, by the public, or even by more than a small minority of economists, is that present government ownership and management of industries, not only in “capitalist” Europe but even in Soviet Russia, works only as well as it does because it is parasitic for accounting on the world market prices established by private enterprise.

Too Much Taken for Granted

 

We are so accustomed to the miracle of private enterprise that we habitually take it for granted. But how does private industry solve the incredibly complex problem of turning out tens of thousands of different goods and services in the proportions in which they are wanted by the public? How does it decide how many loaves of bread to produce and how many overcoats, how many hammers and how many houses, how many pins and how many Pontiacs, how many teaspoons and how many telephones? And how does it decide the no less difficult problem of which are the most economical and efficient methods of producing these goods? It solves these problems through the institutions of private property, the free market, and the existence of money—through the interrelations of supply and demand, costs and prices, profits and losses. When shoes are in deficient supply compared with the marginal cost of producing them, their price, and therefore the margin of profit in producing them, will increase in relation to the price and margin of profit in producing other things. Therefore, the existing producers will turn out more shoes, and perhaps new producers will order machinery to make them. When the new supply catches up with existing demand, the price of shoes, and the profit of making them, will fall; the supply will no longer be increased. When hats go out of fashion and fewer are worn, the price will decline, and some may remain unsalable. Fewer hats will be made. Some producers will go out of business, and the previous labor and salvageable capital devoted to producing hats will be forced into other lines. Thus, there will be a constant tendency toward equalization of profit margins (comparative risks considered) in all lines. These yearly, seasonal, or daily changes in supply and demand, cost and price, and comparative profit margins, will tend to maintain a delicate but constantly changing balance in the production of the tens of thousands of different services and commodities in the proportions in which consumers demand them.

The Competitive Role

 

The same guide of comparative money prices and profits will also decide the kinds and proportions of capital goods that are turned out, as well as which one of hundreds of different possible methods of production is adopted in each case.

In addition, within each industry as well as between industries, competition will be taking place. Each producer will not only be trying to turn out a better product than his competitors, a product more likely to appeal to buyers, but he will also be trying to reduce his cost of production as low as he possibly can in order to increase his margin of profit—or perhaps even, if his costs are already higher than average, to meet his competition and stay in business. This means that competition always tends to bring about the least-cost method of production—in other words, the most economical and efficient method of production.

Those who are most successful in this competition will acquire more capital to increase their production still further; those who are least successful will be forced out of the field. So capitalist production tends constantly to be drawn into the hands of the most efficient.

But how can this appallingly complex problem of supplying goods in the proportions in which consumers want them, and with the most economical production methods, be solved if the institutions of capitalism—private ownership, competition, free markets, money, prices, profits and losses—do not exist?

The Baffling Problem of Economic Calculation

 

Suppose that all property—at least in the means of production—is taken over by the state, and that banks and money and credit are abolished as vicious capitalist institutions; how is the government to solve the problem of what goods and services to produce, of what qualities, in what proportions, in what localities, and by what technological methods?

There cannot, let us keep in mind, be a hundred or a thousand different decisions by as many different bureaucrats, with each allowed to decide independently how much of one given product must be made. The available amount of land, capital, and labor is always limited. The factors of production needed to make A are therefore not available for B or C; and so on. So there must be a single unified overall decision, with the relative amounts and proportions to be made of each commodity all planned in advance in relation to all the others, and with the factors of production all allocated in the corresponding proportions.

So there must be only one Master Production Plan. This could conceivably be adopted by a series of majority votes in a parliament, but in practice, to stop interminable debate and to get anything done, the broad decisions would be made by a small handful of men, and the detailed execution would probably be turned over to one Master Director who had the final word. How would he go about solving his problem?

We must keep in mind that without free competitive markets, money, and money-prices, he would be helpless. He would know, of course (if the seizure of the means of production has only recently occurred), that people under a capitalist system lived in a certain number of houses of various qualities, wore a certain amount of clothing consisting of such and such items and qualities, ate a certain amount of food consisting of such and such meats, dairy products, grains, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and beverages. The director could simply try to continue this pre-existing mix indefinitely. But then his decisions would be completely parasitic on the previous capitalism, and he would produce and perpetuate a completely stationary or stagnant economy. If such an imitative socialism had been put into effect in, say, the France of 1870, or even of 1770, or 1670, and France had been cut off from foreign contacts, the economy of France would still be producing the same type and per capita quantity of goods and services, and by the same antiquated methods, as those that had existed in 1870, or even in 1770, or 1670, or whatever the initial year of socialization. It is altogether probable that even if such a slavishly imitative production schedule were deliberately adopted it would overlook thousands of miscellaneous small items, many of them essential, because some bureaucrat had neglected to put them into the schedule. This has happened time and again in Soviet Russia.

What Shall Be Produced?

 

But let us assume that all these problems are somehow solved. How would the socialist Planners go about trying to improve on capitalist production? Suppose they decided to increase the quantity and quality of family housing. As total production is necessarily limited by existing technological knowledge and capital equipment, they could transfer land, capital, and labor to the production of more such housing only at the cost of producing less food, or less clothing, or fewer hospitals, or schools, or cars, or roads, or less of something else. How could they decide what was to be sacrificed? How would they fix the new commodity proportions?

But putting aside even this formidable problem, how would the Planners decide what machines to design, what capital goods to make, what technological methods to use, and at what localities, to produce the consumers’ goods they wanted and in the proportions they wanted them?

This is not primarily a technological question, but an economic one. The purpose of economic life, the purpose of producing anything, is to increase human satisfactions, to increase human wellbeing. In a capitalist system, if people are not willing to pay at least as much for the consumer goods that have been produced as was paid for the labour, land, capital equipment, and raw materials that were used to produce them, it is a sign that production has been misdirected and that some of these productive factors have been wasted. There has been a net decrease in economic well-being instead of an increase.

There are many feasible methods—crucible, Bessemer, open hearth, electric furnace, basic oxygen process—of making steel from iron. In fact, there are today a thousand technically feasible ways of making almost anything out of almost anything. In a private enterprise system, what decides which method will be used at a given place and time is a comparison of prospective costs.

And this necessarily means costs in terms of money. In order to compare the economic efficiency of one productive method with another the methods must be reduced to some common denominator. Otherwise numerical comparison and calculation are impossible. In a market system this common denominator is achieved by comparisons in terms of money and of prices stated in money. It is only by this means that society can determine whether a given commodity is being produced at a profit or a loss, or at what comparative profits or losses any number of different commodities are being produced.

“Playing” Capitalism

 

In recent years even the most doctrinaire communist countries have become aware of this. They are going to be guided hereafter, they say, by profit and loss. An industry must be profitable to justify itself. So they fix money-prices for everything and measure profit and loss in monetary terms. But this is merely “playing” free markets. This is “playing” capitalism. This imitation is the unintended flattery that the communists now pay to the system they still ostensibly reject and denounce.

But the reason why this mock-market system has so far proved so disappointing is that the communist governments do not know how to fix prices. They have achieved whatever success they have had when they have simply used the quotations they found already existing for international commodities in the speculative markets—i.e., in the capitalist markets—in the Western world. But there are a limited number of such grains and raw materials with international markets. In any case, their prices change daily, and are always for specific grades at specific locations.

In trying to fix prices for commodities and the multitudinous objects not quoted on these international markets the communist countries are at sea. The Marxist labor theory of value is false and therefore useless to them. We cannot measure the value of anything by the number of hours of “labour-time” put into it. There are enormous differences in the skill, quality, and productivity of different people’s labour. Nor can we, as suggested by some Soviet economists, base prices on “actual costs of production.” Costs of production are themselves prices—the prices of raw materials, of factories and machinery, rent, interest, the wages of labour, and so on.

Our Differences Guide Us

 

And nowhere, in a free market, are prices for long exactly equal to costs of production. It is precisely the differences between prices and costs of production that are constantly, in a free market economy, redirecting and changing the balance of production as among thousands of different commodities and services. In industries where prices are well above marginal costs of production, there will be a great incentive to increase output, as well as increased means to do it. In industries where prices fall below marginal costs of production, output must shrink. Everywhere supply will keep adjusting itself to demand.

Where prices have been set arbitrarily, real profits and losses cannot be determined. If I am a commissar in charge of an automobile factory, and do not own the money I pay out, and you are a commissar in charge of a steel plant, and do not own the steel you sell or retain the money you sell it for, and we are each ordered to show a profit, the first thing each of us will do is to appeal to the Central Planning Board to set an advantageous price (to him) for steel and for automobiles. As an automobile commissar, I will want the price of the cars I sell to be set as high as possible, and the price of the steel I buy to be set as low as possible, so that my own “profit” record will look good or my bonus will be fixed high. But as a steel commissar, you will want the selling price of your steel to be fixed as high as possible, and your own cost prices to be fixed low, for the same reason. But when prices are thus fixed blindly, politically, and arbitrarily, who will know what any industry’s real profits or losses (as distinguished from its nominal bookkeeping profits or losses) have been?

Decentralized Chaos

 

The problems of centralized direction of an economy are so insuperable that in socialist countries there are periodically experiments in decentralization. But in an economy only half free—that is, in an economy in which every factory is free to decide how much to produce of what, but in which the basic prices, wages, rents, and interest rates are blindly fixed or guessed at by the sole ultimate owner of the means of production, the state—a decentralized system could quickly become even more chaotic than a centralized one. If finished products m, n, o, p, and so on are made from raw materials a, b, c, d, and so on in various combinations and proportions, how can the individual producers of the raw materials know how much of each to produce, and at what rate, unless they know how much the producers of the finished products plan to produce of the latter, how much raw materials they are going to need, and just when they are going to need them? And how can the individual producer of raw material a or of finished product m know how much of it to produce unless he knows how much of that raw material or finished product others in his line are planning to produce, as well as relatively how much ultimate consumers are going to want or demand?

An economic system without private property and free-market price guides must be chaotic. In a communistic system, centralized or decentralized, there will always be unbalanced and unmatched production, shortages of this and unusable surpluses of that, duplications, bottlenecks, time lags, inefficiency, and appalling waste.

In brief, socialism is incapable of solving the incredibly complicated problem of economic calculation. That problem can be solved only by capitalism.[16]

====================================================

[11] I have examined most of these schemes in more detail elsewhere (chiefly in my Economics in One Lesson and in Man vs. the Welfare State) and must refer the interested reader to these and other sources for more extended discussion.

[12] Gunnar Myrdal, The Challenge of World Poverty (Pantheon Books, 1970), pp. 400–401 and passim.

[13] Man vs. the Welfare State (Arlington House, 1969), pp. 23–25.

[14] (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1959.)

[15] (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1960, 1965.)

[16] For a fuller discussion of the problem of economic calculation, see my novel, Time Will Run Back (originally published by Appleton-Century-Crofts in 1951 as The Great Idea, and republished under the new title by Arlington House in 1966). And see especially the discussion by the great seminal thinker who has done more than any other to make other economists aware of the existence, nature, and extent of the problem, Ludwig von Mises, in his Socialism: An Analysis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936, 1951, 1953, 1969), and in his Human Action (Chicago: Henry Regnery, third revised edition, 1963), pp. 200–231 and 698–715. See also Collectivist Economic Planning, edited by F. A. Hayek (London: George Routledge, 1935), and Economic Calculation in the Socialist Society, by T. J. B. Hoff (London: William Hodge, 1949).

 

The Problem of Poverty

by Henry Hazlitt, The Freeman. June 1971. (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for
Economic Education). Edited by Hilton Ratcliffe
The history of poverty is almost the history of mankind. The ancient writers have left us few specific accounts of it. They took it for granted. Poverty was the normal lot. The ancient world of Greece and Rome, as modern historians reconstruct it, was a world where houses had no chimneys, and houses heated in cold weather by a fire on a hearth or a fire-pan in the center of the room, were filled with smoke whenever a fire was started, and where consequently the walls, ceiling, and furniture were blackened and more or less covered by soot at all times; where light was supplied by smoky oil lamps which, like the houses in which they were used, had no chimneys, and where eye-trouble as a result of all this smoke was general. Greek dwellings had no heat in winter, no adequate sanitary arrangements, and no washing facilities.[1]
Above all there was hunger and famine, so chronic that only the worst examples were recorded. We learn from the Bible how Joseph advised the pharaohs on famine relief measures in ancient Egypt. In a famine in Rome in 436 B.C., thousands of starving people threw themselves into the Tiber. Conditions in the Middle Ages were no better: “The dwellings of medieval laborers were hovels—the walls made of a few boards cemented with mud and leaves. Rushes and reeds or heather made the thatch for the roof. Inside the houses there was a single room, or in some cases two rooms, not plastered and without floor, ceiling, chimney, fireplace, or bed, and here the owner, his family, and his animals lived and died. There was no sewage for the houses, no drainage, except surface drainage for the streets, no water supply beyond that provided by the town pump, and no knowledge of the simplest forms of sanitation. Tye and oats furnished the bread and drink of the great body of the people of Europe…. Precariousness of livelihood, alternations between feasting and starvation, droughts, scarcities, famines, crime, violence, murrains, scurvy, leprosy, typhoid diseases, wars, pestilences and plagues’—made part of medieval life to a degree with which we are wholly unacquainted in the western world of the present day.”[2]

Frequent Famines

And, ever-recurring, there was famine: “In the eleventh and twelfth centuries famine [in England] is recorded every fourteen years, on an average, and the people suffered twenty years of famine in two hundred years. In the thirteenth century the list exhibits the same proportion of famine; the addition of high prices made the proportion greater. Upon the whole, scarcities decreased during the three following centuries; but the average from 1201 to 1600 is the same, namely, seven famines and ten years of famine in a century.”[3]
One writer has compiled a detailed summary of twenty-two famines in the thirteenth century in the British Isles, with such typical entries as: “1235: Famine and plague in England; 20,000 persons die in London; people eat horseflesh, bark of trees, grass, etc.”[4]
But recurrent starvation runs through the whole of human history. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists thirty-one major famines from ancient times down to 1960. Let us look first at those from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century: 1005: famine in England. 1016: famine throughout Europe. 1064–72: seven years’ famine in Egypt. 1148–59: eleven years’ famine in India. 1344–45: great famine in India. 1396–1407: the Durga Devi famine in India, lasting twelve years. 1586: famine in England giving rise to the Poor Law system. 1661: famine in India; no rain fell for two years. 1769–70: great famine in Bengal; a third of the population—10 million persons—perished. 1783: the Chalisa famine in India. 1790–92: the Deji Bara, or skull famine in India, so called because the dead were too numerous to be buried.[5]
This list is very incomplete—as probably any list would be. In the winter of 1709, for example, in France, more than a million persons, according to the figures of the time, died out of a population of 20 millions.[6]
In the eighteenth century, in fact, France suffered eight famines, culminating in the short crops of 1788, which were one of the causes of the Revolution. I am sorry to be dwelling in such detail on so much human misery. I do so only because mass starvation is the most obvious and intense form of poverty, and this chronicle is needed to remind us of the appalling dimensions and persistence of the evil.

Thomas R. Malthus

In 1798, a young English country parson, Thomas R. Malthus, delving into this sad history, anonymously published an Essay on the Principles of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society. His central doctrine was that there is a constant tendency for population to outgrow food supply and production. Unless checked by self-restraint, population will always expand to the limit of subsistence, and will be held there by disease, war, and ultimately famine. Malthus was an economic pessimist, viewing poverty as man’s inescapable lot. He influenced Ricardo and the other classical economists of his time, and it was the general tone of their writings that led Carlyle to denounce political economy as “the Dismal Science.”
Malthus had in fact uncovered a truth of epoch-making importance. His work first set Charles Darwin on the chain of reasoning which led to the promulgation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. But Malthus greatly overstated his case, and neglected to make essential qualifications. He failed to see that, once men in any place (it happened to be his own England) succeeded in earning and saving a little surplus, made even a moderate capital accumulation, and lived in an era of political freedom and protection for property, their liberated industry, thought, and invention could at last make it possible for them enormously and acceleratively to multiply per capita production beyond anything achieved or dreamed of in the past. Malthus announced his pessimistic conclusions just in the era when they were about to be falsified.
The Industrial Revolution had begun, but nobody had yet recognized or named it. One of the consequences of the increased production it led to was to make possible an unparalleled increase in population. The population of England and Wales in 1700 is estimated to have been about 5,500,000; by 1750 it had reached some 6,500,000. When the first census was taken in 1801 it was 9,000,000; by 1831 it had reached 14,000,000. In the second half of the eighteenth century population had thus increased by 40 per cent, and in the first three decades of the nineteenth century by more than 50 per cent. This was not the result of any marked change in the birth rate, but of an almost continuous fall in the death rate.[7]
People were now producing the food supply and other means to support a greater number of them. This accelerating growth in population continued. The enormous forward spurt of the world’s population in the nineteenth century was unprecedented in human experience. “In one century, humanity added much more to its total volume than it had been able to add during the previous million years.”[8]

Starvation in Recent Times

But we are getting ahead of our story. We are here concerned with the long history of human poverty and starvation, rather than with the short history of how mankind began to emerge from it. Let us come back to the chronicle of famines, this time from the beginning of the nineteenth century:
1838: intense famine in North-Western Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), India; 800,000 perished. 1846–47: famine in Ireland, resulting from the failure of the potato crop. 1861: famine in northwest India. 1866: famine in Bengal and Orissa; 1,000,000 perished. 1869: intense famine in Rajputana; 1,500,000 perished. 1874: famine in Bihar, India. 1876–78: famine in Bombay, Madras, and Mysore; 5,000,000 perished. 1877–78: famine in north China; 9,500,000 said to have perished. 1887–89: famine in China. 1891–92: famine in Russia. 1897: famine in India; 1,000,000 perished. 1905: famine in Russia. 1916: famine in China. 1921: famine in the U.S.S.R., brought on by communist economic policies; at least 10,000,000 persons seemed doomed to die, until the American Relief Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, came in and reduced direct deaths to about 500,000. 1932–33: famine again in the U.S.S.R., brought on by Stalin’s farm collectivization policies; “millions of deaths.” 1943: famine in Bengal; about 1,500,000 perished. 1960–61: famine in the Congo.[9]

Industrialization Prevents Famine in Western World

We can bring this dismal history down to date by mentioning the famines in recent years in Communist China and the war-created famine of 1968–70 in Biafra. The record of famines since the end of the eighteenth century does, however, reveal one striking difference from the record up to that point. Mass starvation did not fall on a single country in the now industrialized Western world. (The sole exception is the potato famine in Ireland; and even that is a doubtful exception because the Industrial Revolution had barely touched mid-nineteenth century Ireland—still a one-crop agricultural country.)
It is not that there have ceased to be droughts, pests, plant diseases, and crop failures in the modern Western world, but that when they occur there is no famine, because the stricken countries are quickly able to import foodstuffs from abroad, not only because the modern means of transport exist, but because, out of their industrial production, these countries have the means to pay for such foodstuffs.
In the Western world today, in other words, poverty and hunger—until the mid-eighteenth century the normal condition of mankind—have been reduced to a residual problem affecting only a minority; and that minority is being steadily reduced.
But the poverty and hunger still prevailing in the rest of the world, in most of Asia, of Central and South America, and of Africa—in short, even now afflicting the great majority of mankind—show the appalling dimensions of the problems still to be solved.
And what has happened and is still happening in many countries today serves to warn us how fatally easy it is to destroy all the economic progress that has already been achieved. Foolish governmental interferences led the Argentine, once the world’s principal producer and exporter of beef, to forbid in 1971 even domestic sale of beef on alternate weeks. Soviet Russia, one of whose chief economic problems before it was communized was to find an export market for its huge surplus of grains, has been forced to import grains from the capitalist countries. One could go on to cite scores of other examples, with ruinous consequences, all brought on by short-sighted governmental policies.[10]
More than thirty years ago, E. Parmalee Prentice was pointing out that mankind has been rescued from a world of want so quickly that the sons do not know how their fathers lived:
“Here, indeed, is an explanation of the dissatisfaction with conditions of life so often expressed, since men who never knew want such as that in which the world lived during many by-gone centuries, are unable to value at its true worth such abundance as now exists, and are unhappy because it is not greater.”[11]
How prophetic of the attitude of rebellious youth in the 1970’s! The great present danger is that impatience and ignorance may combine to destroy in a single generation the progress that it took untold generations of mankind to achieve.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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[1] E. Parmalee Prentice, Hunger and History (Harper & Bros., 1939), pp. 39–40.
[2] Ibid., pp. 15–16.
[3] William Farr, “The Influence of Scarcities and of the High Prices of Wheat on the Mortality of the
People of England,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Feb. 16, 1846, Vol. IX, p. 158.
[4] Cornelius Walford, “The Famines of the World,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, March
19, 1878, Vol. 41, p. 433.
[5] Article “Famine,” 1965 edition.
[6] Gaston Bouthoul, La population dans la monde, pp. 142–43.
[7] T. S. Ashton. The Industrial Revolution (1760–1830) (Oxford University Press, 1948.), pp. 3–4
[8] Henry Pratt Fairchild, “When Population Levels Off,” Harper’s Magazine, May, 1938, Vol. 176,
p. 596.
[9] From articles “Famine” and “Russia,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1965 edition.
[10] Note by HR: A vivid example is the interference by Robert Mugabe in the economic structures of Zimbabwe. The results are grim.
[11] Hunger and History (Harper & Bros., 1939), p. 236.

GRAND NARRATIVES OF LIBERALISM AND CONSERVATISM

(from chapter 12 of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt)

GRAND NARRATIVES OF LIBERALISM AND CONSERVATISM

In the book Moral, Believing Animals, the sociologist Christian Smith writes about moral matrices within which human life takes place. He agrees with Durkheim that every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix.  Smith is a master at extracting these grand narratives, condensing them into single paragraphs. Each narrative, he says, identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises), and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally—to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces—and to impart lessons about what can be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.

One such narrative, which Smith calls the “liberal progress narrative,” organises much of the moral matrix of the American academic left. It goes like this:

“Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism… But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximise the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This narrative’s general plotline should be recognisable to leftists everywhere. It’s a heroic liberation narrative. Authority, hierarchy, power, and tradition must be broken to free the “noble aspirations” of the victims.

Smith wrote this narrative before Moral Foundations Theory existed, but you can see that the narrative derives its moral force primarily from the Care/Harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims), and the Liberty/Oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, Fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of Fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of Loyalty or Sanctity.

Contrast that narrative to one for modern conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen is another master of narrative analysis, and in his book The Political Brain he extracts the master narrative that was implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the major speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, a time when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, the inflation rate was over 10%, and America’s cities, industries, and self-confidence were declining. The Reagan narrative goes like this:

“Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way… Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals… Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle… and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles… Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism… Then Americans decided to take their country back from those sought to undermine it.”

This narrative’s general plotline should be recognisable to conservatives everywhere. This too is a heroic narrative, but it’s heroism of defence. It’s less suited to being turned into a major motion picture. Rather than the visually striking image of crowds storming the Bastille and freeing prisoners, this narrative looks more like a family reclaiming its home from termites and then repairing the joists.

The Reagan narrative is also visibly conservative in that it relies for its moral force on at least five of the six moral foundations. There’s only a hint of Care (for the victims of crime), but there are very clear references to liberty (as freedom from government restraint), Fairness (as proportionality), Loyalty (soldiers and the flag), Authority (family and traditions), and Sanctity (God versus celebration of promiscuity).

The two narratives are as opposed as could be. Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side? The obstacles to empathy are not symmetrical. If the left builds moral matrices on a smaller number of moral foundations, then there is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right. Even though conservatives score slightly lower on measures of empathy, and may therefore be less moved by by a story about suffering and oppression, they can still recognise that it is awful to be kept in chains. And even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the twentieth century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.

But when liberals try to understand the Reagan narrative, they have a harder time. When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing  Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theatre critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

“Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destry the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster, and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.”
One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theatre critic—who skilfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.

Morality binds and blinds.